Unmistakeable (by Cherry May)

Summary:  A Laredo Fan Fiction
Category:  Laredo
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG-13
Word Count:  50,000


After his village he had lived in since childhood had been raided, Tosaabitu Wasápe, or White Bear, made a rather unwilling reintroduction into white man’s society. Being forced onto a reservation with the rest of his kin, he became just as surly as the rest of the young men, and at 18, he was already on his way to being the largest brave in the tribe as well the best knife fighter. Even with his remarkable strength and skill with a blade, he still had to work twice as hard to be accepted by the other boys. The reason being: he was white. He was taken into the tribe while still a young boy when his family was killed by the same raiding party that carried him away. It was nearly impossible to identify his actual heritage unless one was actually looking for it, for he had dark hair, eyes, and skin.

One day he decided to experiment with his hard-practiced skills. He would steal a horse from the stockade and find a way back to the main tribe that was still giving the U.S. Cavalry the runaround. Surely this would prove him to be all-Comanche. Goaded on by his fellow braves, he jumped onto a trooper guard and leapt onto the back of the nearest horse and took off at a gallop. His so-called friends immediately scattered as the nearest soldiers hurried to get their own horses prepared. All were left in the dust as Wasápe disappeared into the night on a dark colored horse.

Later it became known to him that the soldiers gave up almost as quickly as it all began. What was one boy going to do? They notified the local Ranger Company to be on the lookout for a single Comanche boy on a horse with a U.S. brand and left it at that. He roamed around for a while, avoiding all white men that he could. One day, a couple months after the incident, he spied a small homestead. Leaving his horse in some brush, he laid down on his stomach in the tall grass to spy on the people who lived there. His first reaction was anger at the tejanos, these annoying settlers who thought it was a suitable to chop up mother earth with their large blades. He fingered his knife, which was as always kept in a sheath on his left leg, but lost the compellation to kill. He felt the ancestors’ scorn, but suddenly came to the realization that the Comanches’ ancestors and his ancestors were not actually the same. Seeing the woman in her homemade dress and apron suddenly made his pulse quicken, but it wasn’t a bloodthirst. When the woman started speaking to the young girl beside her, Wasápe was startled to realize how well he could understand them. His curiosity was spiked, and Wasápe wished to hear more. He slithered closer on his belly but jolted to a stop when he felt a rifle tickle the hairs on his neck.

“Hold it, you redskin!”

Wasápe smirked. It was nothing but a mere boy. He easily snatched the boy’s ankle and jerked him off his feet. He was on top of the helpless child in a second, knife out and ready to cut.

“JOEY!” the woman shrieked, and Wasápe jerked as if shot, his head whipping toward her voice, eyes wild. That name! It was so…familiar. That was when Wasápe realized that before he was White Bear, he was…Joey.

“Ma!” the boy cried, and suddenly Wasápe realized that the woman was not calling to him, but to the boy on the ground. Wasápe looked down at Joey and frowned. The boy could not have been more than eight summers old. Tears were already coursing down his face. The woman and girl were charging toward Wasápe, reminding him of the mother of his namesake. He raised the knife off Joey’s neck and instead pointed it in their direction, effectively halting them in their tracks.

“You…,” he choked. He had not used this tongue in so long, he could hardly remember how. The two female’s eyes were bugging out of their heads, but they did not utter a sound. “You…no come. Me…I…kill this one.” There, that got the point across. He got to his feet, yanking the boy up with him, one hand holding the boy’s face and the other holding the knife at his throat again.

The mother spread her hands in a placating gesture. “Please, don’t kill my boy…. Do you speak English?”

Wasápe grunted.

“Please,” she began again, “put that knife down. We won’t do you no harm.” Then her eyes remained on Wasápe, but she spoke to the girl. “Idabelle,” she murmured out of the corner of her mouth. “Go get some food and a blanket.” Wasápe tightened his grip on the boy’s face when the girl started to back away slowly, causing him to whimper.

“Where she go?” he growled, startling himself at how easily the words came to him.

“It’s alright,” the woman said, her hands moving with her words in reassuring circles. “She is going to bring some things here for you to have.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he kept his knife still. He would see what they had to offer. Moments later, the girl came out of the cabin with a blanket that appeared to be holding things. She knelt down a step in front of her mother and spread out the plain grey fabric. Inside was a partial loaf of bread, a sizable chunk of bacon, and some dried apples.

Taking in all of the items, Wasápe looked back to the eyes of the woman. Her hands were up again, only in a more begging position. “Please, please, give me back my boy. Take these things in exchange.”

Wasápe did battle in his mind. A good brave would take these things and take the tejanos’ scalps to go with them. However, his knife was stilled when the boy started to fidget in his arms. The woman said, “Stop, Joey.” It was as though she were speaking to him, Wasápe…or Joey. He felt torn in half. At the rate he was going, he would never find a friendly tribe to take him in before winter. It was not like he could return to the reservation. That wasn’t even an option, not with what happened when he left hanging over his head. He could still kill these tejanos and take their horses and all the food they had, camp alone in the hills through the winter and try to find his tribe in the spring. But winter was long and cruel when you did not have shelter, so killing these whites would do little for him. The boy was still whimpering and the girl was poised on the ground, her hands wringing. The mother’s face was worst of all. She just stood there silently, her eyes full of tears, but also of hope. She reminded him of his first mother. Memories of her death rose unbidden before his eyes. How could he take away another beautiful creature like his mother? He made his decision.

“You,” he nodded at the girl. “Put up food, wrap up real good. We take to my horse.” While the girl started to do as he asked, the mother took another step forward.

“Thank you! Bless you, young man,” she said, her tears finally breaking free and spilling over her sun-tanned cheeks.

Wasápe’s heart leapt in his chest when he heard her. He felt the need to redeem himself to this woman. He shoved the boy into her waiting arms. “I never hurt him. You remember this.” He hesitated, then said, “One time, my name be Joey too.”

Still clutching the boy in her arms, she said, “I can see the white in you, boy. You lived with the Comanche for a long time?”

Not sure why he was conversing with this strange woman, he said, “Since I was like him.” He pointed at Joey.

“Where are you from?” she asked, tentatively.

Her daughter was standing now, the blanket folded into a neat parcel. “What are you doin’, Ma?” she whispered. “He just tried to kill Joey.”

“I never hurt him,” Wasápe said, defensively. He crossed his arms over his chest, pleased when the girl’s eyes bulged at the sight of his muscular arms. She would make a good squaw he mused. Perhaps he would take her with him. Winters were cold and he was due to marry soon.

“Well, you sure enough were goin’ to until I brought you this stuff!”

Maybe she wasn’t such a good prospect after all. Nobody wanted a nagging woman to pester him. He settled on a brooding glare that made her mouth close with a snap.

The woman took the bundle from the girl and said, “Idabelle, take your brother up to the cabin. Now, please.” Idabelle cast one last look Wasápe’s way before taking her brother by the hand and leading him to the ramshackle structure. The mother looked back at Wasápe. “Thank you so much, Joey.” She held out the bundle. He reached for it, and felt very ashamed when she flinched away from his knife, which was still in his hand. He thrust it back in its sheath. She smiled gently and held out the blanket again, which he took.

His hand touched hers, and he felt the work-hardened hand of a farm wife. She must be a good worker, good looking too, but no woman has children without a man. Nodding his head at her, he said, “You fine woman, out here by self. You have man?”

Her face reddened, and her eyes dropped a little. “Um, no….” She sounded reluctant.

“You not have to worry. I take care of you now.”

She gasped and took a step back. “You…you….”

He shrugged. “I am very strong. I have no place for winter. You have no man. I stay here.”

Her face heated even more at his declaration. “Um, Joey, you are much younger than me. That is to say, you are almost the same age as my daughter. If you are suggesting what I think you are….”

He frowned at her. What was she proposing? “Woman, I not mean this bad, but I will leave after winter. I cannot stay here for long time, not be your man always.” He looked at the blanket in his arms, and felt his own face warm. He cast it back at her like it contained a rattler. “I not take your blanket! I sleep on my own!”

She took the blanket clumsily, her eyes wide. Then, to Wasápe’s surprise, she started to laugh.

“For why you do this?” he muttered, confused.

“I am sorry, Joey. You just confused me there for a second. I would appreciate your help. I am just not sure…” Her eyes strayed to the knife on his leg. “You may be white in the blood, but you are Comanche in the heart. Our people have been fighting for so long. My man…that is why is gone now.”

Wasápe felt a pang in his heart. Why did everything have to be so complicated? He needed a place to winter, she needed help. Why could it not be as simple as that? He voiced his thoughts as best as he could with his halting speech, then continued, saying, “I try my best to be Comanche for long as I ‘member with them. I try to be good warrior, be strong, prove them I am a man. But they always remind me that I am white. Even my Comanche name, Tosaabitu Wasápe, tells to all that I am white.”

“You don’t have to go back to them. You could become like us again.”

He wanted to believe it, but he had worked so long and hard to be the warrior he was today. “Me, a warrior? Some warrior. I let these tejanos live and offer to help keep them alive through the winter? The coyote is telling me his lies and making me foolish.”

She could tell he was battling within himself. “Just stay for supper. You can decide after that.” Even as they were standing there, a few snowflakes started to fall around them. She held out one arm. “Come in, Joey, come in.”

His inner turmoil was not settled, so even while he took a step forward he said, “Call me Wasápe. Means bear in white words.”

Her smile was strained. “Alright, Wasápe it is. I suppose it would be confusing if there were two Joeys in the house.”

He pondered this, and then offered a tentative smile.

*****

“This dadgum sergeant is gonna get it, sooner or later,” muttered the man.

“What was that, Bennett?”

“Uh, nothin’, nothin’ at all, Sarge,” responded the man in his gravelly bass voice. On a patrol for the first time, ex-cattle rustler Reese Bennett rode beside his sergeant, a stiff, rule-abiding ex-cavalry officer. There were rumors circulating that this patrol was going to be his last before he was moved to Laredo to become the local captain. Reese didn’t want to speculate. Parmalee would probably stay on duty as a sergeant just to give Reese grief. Instead of bunking inside out of the torrential spring rains like the rest of the rangers, Reese and Parmalee were out looking for Comanches. “You sure them reports are true, Sarge? I mean, there ain’t been no Comanch spotted out this way in over a year.”

“And how would you know this, Bennett? You just joined up a month ago.”

“Well, I always wanted to be careful when crossing this territory before when I was…uh…driving cattle,” Reese stammered. He had been set to hang but was offered a life in the Rangers instead. Now he wasn’t so sure which was better.

“I know all about your previous life as a drover. But yes, no real sightings have been reported except for a few claims. That’s the thing about these people out here. Live too long alone, they start jumping at shadows.”

Reese nodded in agreement. The last homestead they had come across housed only one man, and he nearly shot their heads off before he who they were.

Parmalee squinted up at the sky. “Looks like it might rain again. Let’s try to find some shelter.”

Reese pulled at his jacket collar moodily. He was just starting to dry off! He wished he had a fellow private with which to commiserate, but he was stuck riding solo with the sergeant.

The two men cleared a rise just as the front came through. Spring storms could be unpredictable, so they were both heartened when the spied a little homestead lying below them. Their horses willingly trotted the last few yards to the front of the barn.

“Reese, put these horses in the barn. I’ll go up and see if anybody’s home.”

Reese pushed the barn door open. It was almost pitch black inside, the combination of darkening skies and shuttered windows. He reluctantly entered with the horses. “Not that I’m scared of the dark, boy,” he said to his horse as he tethered him to a nearby post. “It’s just what’s in the dark that scares me.”

He could hear voices in the distance, Parmalee’s and a woman’s. Sticking his head out of the barn door, Reese caught the sergeant’s eye, who sent him a permission-giving nod. Taking the initiative, Reese went ahead and started to unsaddle both horses. When he put the saddles over to the side, he noticed a lantern hanging on a nail. Fishing out a match, he lit the wick, grinning at the light spilling into the shadows. “That’s better,” he said to himself. He found two empty stalls and pulled the captain’s horse into one, and then led his into the other. There was another horse in the next stall that whickered in greeting. He was an attractive, well-muscled bay. Reese loved animals of any kind, but horses especially. “Why, hello there, son,” he said cheerfully. While looking over the wall at the gelding, he noticed a brush on the far wall of the bay’s enclosure. Stepping into the stall, saying, “Whoa there, son,” he grabbed the brush. The horse nickered and bumped him with his big, black nose. “Hey, you want brushed?” Reese obliged and ran the brush down the bay’s neck. His laugh died in his throat when he reached the horse’s shoulder. There, as plain as day, was the U.S. cavalry brand.

Reese tried not to jump to conclusions, but there was no tangible reason for any civilian, even if retired military, to have a cavalry horse. There was nothing left to do but tell the sergeant. Putting the brush back where he found it, he ducked under the stall bar and made his way to the opening of the barn. He was nearly there when a shape suddenly materialized out of the shadows. Reese’s hand immediately went to his gun, but the figure was too quick. Reese was knocked to the ground while at the same time his pistol was ripped from his grasp. Breathing heavily, he struggled to regain his feet, only to be pushed down again. Reese decided to just stay put until this dark figure either explained himself or made another move. Since the figure was silhouetted in the doorway, Reese could only gather one thing: this person was big. Broad shoulders and slightly over six feet, the man looked as though he was part bear.

“Well,” Reese gasped out, his breath still haggard. “What are you waitin’ on?”

The man stepped forward into the light of the lantern, and Reese gasped in shock. There before him was one of the largest Comanches he had ever seen. Though he looked to only be in his late teens or early twenties, the Indian was incredibly brawny. He was fully decked out in buckskin breeches and loin cloth, as well as knee-high moccasins. On his torso he was wearing a loose buckskin jacket, which hung open, revealing a muscular chest and several necklaces, some adorned with bones and teeth. Two braids, decorated with beads and colorful cloth, hung with the necklaces. One feather lay flat on his dark hair, its soft end pointed off to one side.

Reese had actually never seen an Indian so close up and personal, and yet he did not feel afraid. Rather, he and the young man stared at each other with open curiosity for at least a full minute. Reese nearly jumped out of his skin when the brave went down into a crouch. Even closer, Reese could see the Comanche’s tan, unlined face, and round, unblinking brown eyes. These eyes squinted in what could be taken to be anger, causing Reese to stammer out, “I don’t mean you no harm! I was just looking for some shelter, me an’ my pard!” He thought it best to leave out the part that he and his “pard” were rangers.

The Indian looked at him skeptically, then opened his mouth to speak. Reese, not expecting to understand a word he said, immediately interrupted saying, “I don’t speak Comanch — wait, what’re you sayin’?”

The brave rolled his eyes — an action startlingly similar to a white man’s — and started again. “I speak English. Probably better than you.”

“Well I’ll be bamboozled,” Reese muttered, scratching his head. This Comanche spoke English with a perfect Texas accent! “How…”

Before he could have a chance to continue, several things happened at once. A noise was heard outside toward which the brave spun on his toes, standing in the same motion. In the same moment, Sergeant Parmalee appeared on one side of the door, his gun already firing. Reese’s ears were ringing; the sounds of gunfire were amplified in the closed interior of the barn. Reese’s yells of protest were complete lost in the foray. He started to get to his feet, but was knocked down once again when a heavy body landed on top of him.

Reese struggled to move under the Indian’s bulk. He could hear the sergeant calling to him. “Bennett! Are you alright?” The brave was rolled off of the crushed ranger, allowing Reese to breathe again. “Bennett?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m alright, Sarge,” Reese said as he sat up. “What did you have to do a thing like that for? He weren’t doin’ me no harm.”

“He had a gun on you! I saw the whole thing.” Sergeant Parmalee protested.

Reese was about to contradict this statement when he heard a load wail. A woman ran into the barn, quickly followed by two kids. “Wasápe!” they were all screaming repeatedly.

Reese got to his feet, halfway expecting to be knocked over again. Parmalee looked at him with slight alarm. “You’ve got blood on you, Ranger. Are you injured?”

“Naw, Sarge, must be his,” Reese said sadly as he took in the scene before him. The woman was cradling the warrior’s head in her lap, and all were crying.

Parmalee stepped closer to Reese. “What is going on? He was a Comanche, wasn’t he?”

“Yessir, but the funny thing about it all, he…”

“Please,” the woman interrupted, “help me! He’s still alive!”

Parmalee, thoroughly confused, rushed to help the lady. “Let’s get him up to the house. Bennett, grab his legs.”

Reese scrambled over, boggled by the turn of events. Staggering under the brave’s weight, they carried him through the slimy mud of the yard, almost slipping and falling with their cargo more than once.

“Here,” the woman gestured toward a cot against one wall close to the fire. The two men gratefully lowered their burden. The cot groaned at his dead weight. Reese stepped back out of the way as the woman looked over the young man. “Fool rangers,” she said hotly, “stickin’ their noses where they don’t belong.”

Parmalee wisely kept silent at this outbreak, Reese noted, and he decided to follow suit. The young girl elbowed past the two men, a bowl of hot water and some rags in her hands. “Excuse us, gentlemen,” she growled in a tone similar to her mother’s.

Sergeant Parmalee inclined his head toward the door. “Let’s give the ladies some breathing room.”

Reese followed him mutely. Once they were clear of the doorway, Parmalee turned toward Reese. “Bennett, everything is not what it seems here. What are two women and a boy doing out here with a Comanche brave?”

“About that, sir. I was tryin’ to tell you somethin’ before they came in. That Comanch, he spoke Texican at me, sir, just as plain as we’re talkin’ right now.”

“So he knows English. What of it?”

“No sir, I mean honest-to-goodness Texican. That feller talks like a born and raised white boy! Can’t figure it,” Reese finished and scratched the back of his head.

Parmalee questioned him further. “What did he say to you?”

“Nothin’ in particular, jus’ that he could speak English is all. That’s when you came in, gun blazin’.”

“What was supposed to do? There was a Comanche standing over you with a gun. Looked like what it looked like.” Parmalee stuck his head back into the doorway, murmuring, “Looks like they’re finishing up in there. I’ll try to get things figured out.”

Parmalee didn’t specify whether Reese was supposed to wait outside or join him, so Reese compromised by standing just inside the doorway. He didn’t want to miss out.

The sergeant started toward the women and the prone body of the Comanche, but was stopped when the boy stepped in front of him. Parmalee looked at him exasperatedly but stayed where he was. “Ma’am, I do wish you would explain the situation to me.”

The woman was wiping her hands on a cloth. “It all seems plenty cut and dried to me, Ranger. You come here, acting like you own the place, and then start shootin’ up my…son.”

Reese couldn’t see the Sergeant’s face but could imagine the incredulity that was surely there. “Your son? But, how…?”

“I really don’t think it’s any of your business,” the daughter chimed in. “He’s my brother. Leave it at that.”

Reese interjected his own argument. “You made it our business when put a horse with a U.S. brand in your barn.”

Parmalee gave Reese a quick glance, who nodded quickly to confirm, but the woman’s suddenly pale face gave undeniable testimony that his words were true. Parmalee turned back toward the woman and said, “Alright, I will overlook your first story as the ramblings of a lonely prairie woman if the next tale you tell is the right one. I am sure the cavalry would be very interested to hear it.”

She stared at him in shock and worry but was snapped out of her trance when the brave moaned from the bed. She slumped onto a three-legged stool next to the boy’s head, which now had a slightly bloody bandage wrapped around it. “Fine,” she said, wringing the cloth in her hands. “Idabelle, Joey, go outside and milk the cows.” Any protest they had was silenced by one look. They left, both carrying wooden buckets. “There,” she pointed toward the kitchen chairs, “sit.” Reese and Parmalee sat, silent, waiting.

“My name is Ellen. My husband was named Joseph. Nigh on 10 years ago, he was killed by a Comanche raidin’ party. It happened just a month before my youngest was born. Me an’ my girl were at my folk’s house at the time, so we were spared. We came back to find the place burned and poor Joe just laying there on the ground, arrows stickin’ out of him. We were grieved, to be sure, but what grieved me most was that my oldest, a boy of 9, was nowhere to be found. Our neighbors figured him to be taken captive to be adopted into the tribe.” Her hand was rubbing the brave’s arm, gently. “I laid awake every night just prayin’ that boy was safe and loved, even if it were by some other woman besides me.” She paused, her eyes fixed on the brave’s face. “Then, as if the Lord answered, Wasápe appeared. He was lost, confused, and…he’s the same age of my lost boy.”

Parmalee leaned forward. “Ma’am, you can’t honestly believe….”

She cut him off. “Yes, I know he’s not my blood,” she snapped. “You think a mother would forget the face of her own son? Not in a lifetime.” She stroked the boy’s head. “But he’s just how I imagined he would look: tall, strong, brave. It all just fits so perfectly. It’s like he found his way back to us.”

“Ma’am, I understand how you feel, but there is a remarkable difference between your son and this boy, being that he is a Comanche and your son was…is not.”

She glared down her nose at him. “Are you blind as well as dense, Ranger?” It was at this moment when Reese noticed that the sun was peeking through the clouds, causing a few rays to shine through the open window onto the brave’s head. What he saw took him by surprise. The boy’s presumably black hair was in actuality a dark brown with sunrays reflecting off lighter strands. The effect was not lost on Parmalee, for he said, “Oh…I see.” A frown crossed his features. “However, this does not change the fact that he assaulted a Texas Ranger as well as stole a cavalry horse, which I assume he took when he jumped a reservation.” He pulled his fugitive book out of his pocket. “In fact, a rather recent entry here describes a young buck who meets this one’s description to a T.” He stood, his 6’6” frame seeming to fill the room. “I’m afraid Ranger Bennett and I will have to take him, white or not.”

Ellen’s face blanched, then reddened. She too got up from her seat, an action that was mirrored by Reese. “Now see here, if you think I will let you drag off an injured man, you are ten kinds of crazy….”

“Fine,” Parmalee said, and crossed the room in two strides to push her aside.

“What…,” she sputtered.

“I wouldn’t dream of having a man with such an injury on my conscious. That is why we will stay here until he recovers adequately. Then we will drag him off. But until that time….” Parmalee’s handcuffs appeared from his pocket. He snapped one bracelet around the brave’s wrist and the other around the frame of the cot. “This ought to hold him for now.” He then relieved the prisoner of his knife and signaled Reese to remove the rifle from above the fireplace. Ignoring the protesting woman, Parmalee ordered Reese to follow him outside.

“Bennett, we’ll take turns on guard duty. Soon as the buck can stand up without falling over, we are going to the nearest army post we can find,” Parmalee stated.

Reese nodded. “Yessir, Sarge. I’ll go on in and sit with him now, if you like.” Parmalee gave him the go ahead, so Reese cautiously reentered the cabin and moved a chair against the wall, facing the door. To his relief, the woman appeared to be elsewhere. The turn of events were all so confusing for him, so he was glad for a chance to just sit a spell and try to muddle through it all. However, the time seemed to stand still after just a few minutes of contemplation, so Reese pulled out his own copy of the fugitive handbook. Every ranger was assigned a book and was required to keep it up to date himself as well as study it frequently. Reese’s was actually another ranger’s copy who had recently “retired”, so the entries were relatively current. Reese figured that with the recent war, the crime rate would have been down during the war years. However, they were not, so it took him about 10 pages before he found a reference to the Comanche brave. “Huh,” he remarked to no one in particular, “this was scratched in here close to two years ago.” If he was the same Indian mentioned here, did this mean that he had been living with these folks all this time?

Reese pondered this for some time, but soon gave up on this as well. Thinking too long and hard made his head hurt. Looking through a few more pages, he crossed off a few he knew to be either captured or dead. Reaching the last page, his eyes fell on the last entry. It was dated only a month ago. It described a young man wanted for stage robbery. His appearance was similar to just about every other man in the book: dark, blackish hair; blue eyes; medium height; lean, hungry build. The description reminded Reese of himself, but this hombre was probably close to 15 years younger as well as from the Panhandle country, a place Reese had never been. He could hardly make out the handwriting of the fellow’s name. He squinted and held the book a tad closer. “Jeff…Herger? Naw, can’t be right….”

He looked up when he heard a sound, his hand going automatically toward his right hip. Through the door, he spotted the young boy peeping in. He smiled at the child, saying, “Well, hello there, sonny. What’s your name?”

“Joey,” he said, displaying a cross posture. He entered the cabin, going to a spot near the prone man’s head. “This here’s my brother, Wasápe. But when he was white he was called Joey, too.”

“Two brothers named Joey? I guess they run out of names out here. Well, Joey is a fine name, no mistake.”

The boy nodded his head before saying, “Are you going to take Wasápe away?”

Reese nodded his head a bit glumly. “I’m afraid I have to, Joey.”

“But why? He never hurt nobody!”

“Not that he told you about, sonny, but he’s a Comanche. That’s what they do in their free time,” Reese said. “You ought to know that.”

“Since my pa was killed by them, is that what you mean?” Joey’s eyes were full of fire. “They took my brother too, but they didn’t kill him. And one day he’s gonna come back!” He looked down at Wasápe. “Maybe he already has.”

Reese tried to be stern and gentle at the same time. “I’m sorry, sonny, but no matter who this fella was before, he’s Wasápe now. And Wasápe’s a Comanche with an itchin’ for killin’ white folks, understand?”

“NO!” Joey yelled, “I don’t believe you! He’s the nicest brother in the whole world! You can’t take him, I won’t let you!”

At this moment, Ellen and Sergeant Parmalee entered. Reese could tell that they had been talking, for Ellen’s face was red and puffy, like she’d been crying, and Parmalee looked as though he had just drank a gallon of alkali water. Joey’s desperate eyes met his mother’s. “Ma, tell ‘em they can’t take him away! Tell ‘em!”

Ellen’s hand came to rest on her boy’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey, but there ain’t nothin’ we can do. These rangers are just trying to do what’s best for everybody, including Wasápe.”

Parmalee kept a respectable distance and spoke to the boy. “Joey, you and your family have kept Wasápe a secret for a long time, which is very brave. He needed a home, and you were kind enough to let him in yours. But he had to stay a secret because you couldn’t let your neighbors know about him, because they would get upset. Your mother has told me that she hasn’t let any of your friends come over, not even for a little while, the whole time Wasápe has been here.”

“Honey,” Ellen interjected, “if anybody were to see Wasápe, he might get hurt. That’s why he has to hide all the time and never gets to go anywhere. It was hurting him, Joey. He needs to be with other people besides us. He needs to go home.”

“But this is his home!” Joey wailed, his little heart breaking. “I found him that day, and he could have killed me, but he didn’t! That’s because he’s my…”

“No, Joey, he is like a brother, but your brother is dead. He’s gone forever.”

“You’re lyin’! He is my brother, I tell you!” With that, he ran from the house. Ellen made to go after him, but then stopped, her hand over her mouth in grief. She sat down at the table. “Seems like just when things start goin’ right for a spell, they just get a dozen times worse.” She shook her head. “What was I thinking, letting a white Comanche come into this family? Didn’t I know something like this would happen?”

“Sarge,” Reese said, “couldn’t we just, uh, sort of overlook this little matter? I mean, this fella ain’t exactly doin’ any harm out here. We could just take the horse back and say we just found him wanderin’ loose! And nobody’d have to know better.”

Ellen smiled, but her eyes were sad. “Thank you for being so thoughtful, Mr. Bennett. You Rangers really aren’t that bad. But Wasápe shouldn’t have to spend his life hiding from the world. He should be free to roam and do what he pleases.” She cautiously looked at Parmalee. “Sergeant, what will the army do to him?”

Parmalee leaned forward, his elbows on the back of a chair. “Well, ma’am, I suppose they will send him back to the reservation, but there might be some…punishment first.”

Her back straightened abruptly. “Punishment! What do you mean?”

“Well, the facts don’t lie, ma’am. He stole a horse and assaulted a soldier. The least I could expect would be…,” he winced before saying, “…federal prison.”

Both Ellen’s and Reese’s jaws dropped, but Reese knew he should not be so surprised. He was headed down a similar road before joining up with the Rangers. However, this just did not seem fair. As far as he was concerned, Wasápe’s crime spree had ended just as it had started. “Sarge, will the state pen even take a Comanche buck?”

Parmalee nodded grimly. “It has been known to happen before, but as Miss Ellen has been so kind to point out, he is indeed white. So, it really doesn’t matter.”

After more discussion that mostly went in circles, the matter was put to rest. Parmalee and Reese were going to have to take Wasápe in, and more than likely he would be sentenced to jail time…if he was not hung. However, the court would more than likely go easy on him since he had been “brainwashed” by the Comanches.

Ellen stroked Wasápe’s arm one last time before going outside to be alone. Parmalee watched her admiringly. “Quite a woman,” he murmured. Then, turning toward Reese, he said, “Bennett, I’ll take first watch. You go on out to the barn and get some shut eye.”

Hours later, Reese was woken by Parmalee, who looked worn both mentally and physically. Without a word, Reese pulled on his hat and buckled his gun belt and walked up the dirt trail to the cabin. A low light was burning inside, and even though he knew everyone was sleeping, he still felt strange going into a person’s house uninvited. He took up his place beside the still-unconscious man and got out a deck of cards to play solitaire. He was into his second game when he heard a low moan. He glanced at Wasápe quickly, but nothing had changed, so he went back to his playing cards. About an hour later, when he grew tired of cards, he stood up and stretched, taking a few steps around, trying to be quiet on the old floor boards. When he turned around, he noticed that Wasápe’s blanket looked as though it had fallen partially off the cot. “How did that happen? Maybe I snagged it when I was going by.”

Feeling like a mama tucking in a child, he pulled the blanket back up around the young man’s throat. “There, now. All snuggly.” He smirked slightly at the picture, then gasped when he noticed that the previously sleeping eyes were now open. “Well howdy,” he said friendlily. Those dark eyes continued to stare. They were so dark Reese had a hard time telling if they were black or brown. Somewhere in the middle, he supposed.

The patient’s hand came up from under the blanket, touching the side of his head gingerly. “A bullet bounced off of your head, there,” Reese informed. “You must have quite the noggin’.”

Wasápe groaned and struggled to sit up, putting his legs over the side of the cot. Reese moved to help him, but Wasápe thrust out a hand to stop him. Well, at least tried to. It was at this moment when Wasápe realized that his hand was handcuffed to the cot. Reese felt guilty as he watched the young man jerk at the cuff with a bit of panic in his eyes. “Now, now, big fella, that won’t do you any good,” Reese said, trying to calm him down. “We best not be wakin’ the whole house, you know.”

Wasápe glared so powerfully at him that Reese almost wanted to turn away, but the young man ceased his yanking. “Why you doin’ this? I done you no harm.”

There was that perfect Texas accent again. It was just so strange to hear such a voice coming from such a Comanche-looking individual. “Well,” Reese began, “me and my pard are actually Texas Rangers, and I hate to have to tell you, but you’re under arrest.”

Wasápe’s face did not change from its stone-like mask. “Really.”

Reese was confused. “Uh, yes, really. You stole a horse from the reservation and took off. Texans don’t take a likin’ to folks of your…uh…kind runnin’ ‘round the countryside. Like to scare a few of them into takin’ a shot at most anybody.”

“My kind, huh?” Wasápe growled. “I don’t even know what my kind is anymore. How should anyone else?”

“Kinda in a tight spot, ain’t you? Well, I was in the same place as you once. Mended my sorry ways though because now, I’m a Ranger.” Reese couldn’t say those last few words too many times. Even still pride swelled his chest.

Wasápe’s eyebrow arched. “Are you suggesting that I join up with the Rangers?”

Reese spread his hands. “Why not? They don’t care none about what you’ve done, just so long as you can shoot and ride.”

“No sir. The day I join the Rangers is the day…well, it ain’t never gonna happen.”

Shrugging, Reese said, “Suit yourself. I reckon you’ll have plenty of time to think over your mistake sittin’ in jail.”

Wasápe attempted to cross his arms but was hampered by the handcuffs, so he settled with laying back down with a huff.

The rest of the night passed in silence. Reese felt sorry for the young man but knew there was nothing that anyone could do for him. The only way he could get out of going to jail would be to join up with the Rangers, and even that wouldn’t be for certain. The Rangers didn’t just accept you straight off. Besides, the army might want him back on the reservation, white blood or not, since he stole that horse.

By the early morning hours, Reese’s eyes were itchy and tired. He remembered his bunk at the barracks with much longing, even though it was almost as hard as sleeping on the floor. The young man did not appear to have slept much either. His eyes were pinched in pain, though Reese suspected it was as much mental as physical.

Just as the first rooster crowed, the door opened to the bedroom. Ellen entered, looking disheveled and exhausted, like she had gotten minimal sleep. She headed straight to Wasápe, and Reese stood to get out of the way. She lifted the bandage, gently tugging it loose from the dried blood. She washed the wound with some water that was left in the pan from last night. Wasápe said nothing throughout the procedure, nor did he lift his eyes to the kind woman’s face. She hovered over him for a moment, and then sadly turned away.

The morning seemed to pass by agonizingly slow. Reese was relieved by Parmalee, and after breakfast, he went to the barn to take a nap. The two rangers took turns guarding the prisoner because, though his head was not completely healed, he looked like he could still be a fair match in a fight with either of them.

When it appeared that Wasápe’s dizziness was subsiding during the evening, Parmalee announced that the rangers would be leaving in the morning…with Wasápe. Even though the little family knew this was coming, they all broke out in fresh tears.

Morning dawned despite wishes it never would. With solemn hearts, everyone prepared for the departure. Reese made sure the horses were sound and ready to go. He couldn’t find an extra saddle in the barn, but he deduced that Wasápe had stolen the horse without one. It would only make sense, him being raised as an Indian and all.

The sergeant held a gun on Wasápe while Reese unlocked the cuff on the bed frame, feeling nervous as Wasápe’s arm tensed under his hand. He whispered to the young buck, “Don’t try it. Wouldn’t want these young’ns to see your brains splattered across the kitchen wall, would you?” These words seemed to deflate any anger in the young man, and he meekly accepted assistance standing from Reese. When Reese went to lock the other cuff around Wasápe’s wrist, the young man said in a low voice, “Let me say goodbye first.” He hesitated, whispering in a strained voice, “Please.” Reese looked at Parmalee, who nodded his head.

Wasápe started with Idabelle. Her pretty face was so red and pinched from her efforts to hold in sobs she looked like she might explode. She embraced her surrogate brother with a fierceness that pushed the breath out of his lungs. “You be careful,” she said, choking slightly.

Next was Joey, who was openly crying. Wasápe crouched to where he was at the boy’s eye level. “You take care of the women while I’m gone, right?”

The boy threw his arms around Wasápe’s neck. “No-o-o!!! I want to come with you!”

“No, no, Joey. These gals need lookin’ after. Be a man while I’m gone and see that no harm comes to them.” He gently pulled the boy’s arms off his neck and stood. Holding out one hand, he shook with the young boy.

“I’ll do it,” whimpered Joey. “You won’t have to worry none about it.”

Wasápe smiled and nodded. As soon as he released Joey’s hand, the boy wrapped his skinny arms around his sister, who reciprocated.

Ellen stood by the door, her eyes dry. She had shed all her tears during the night. Her hand brushed Wasápe’s face before she gently tugged on one braid as a signal for him to extend his head. She kissed his cheek and then held her lips close to his ear, whispering something. Reese saw him nod briefly before he gathered the much smaller woman into his arms, kissing her forehead. He pulled away, her hand still on the end of his braid, looking as though she was unwilling to let go. Her eyes took him like she expected to never see his face again. Finally, let go of his hair and stepped back. “We’ll be here…when you come back over that hill. Goodbye…son.”

The men all walked outside, after which Wasápe turned toward Reese with hands extended. The ranger wordlessly attached the other cuff to the young man’s wrist. Reese could have sworn he’d seen wooden statues whose faces had more expression than the young man’s.

“Mount up,” Parmalee commanded. Reese held the bridle of the cavalry horse so he wouldn’t shy away. Wasápe jumped up effortlessly onto the horse’s bare back, but then swayed dangerously from the effects of the concussion. Reese put one hand on his leg to steady him but retreated when he received a menacing glare.

The family stood in the dog run, all holding onto each other. As the men started to ride away, Wasápe looked at them once, his shoulders hunched and head held low. He turned away and did not look back.

*****

Some Time Later

Fall was starting to set in on the Texas prairie, but the sun seemed to be fighting to hold on to summer for as long as possible. Wasápe felt its full brunt on his bare head and was beginning to see the logic the white men had in their wide-brimmed hats. However, after 16 months quarrying rock and laying railroad track, Wasápe had his fill of white men and their big hats. Ostracized for his long hair and refusal to give up his Comanche name, he soon became number one on the list of both guards and inmates. However, though it didn’t take long for his fellow prisoners to realize they would be better off leaving him alone; the guards were another matter. Many were not much better men than those serving time; however, they could bully others and get away with it. Wasápe knew this first hand. Even if he was merely defending himself, he would get long stretches in the hole or hotbox. It wasn’t as if he was asking for trouble; he got into it just for being alive.

He sighed hugely. It was all over now. He had his papers, though he couldn’t read them. They proclaimed him a free man and that, though he looked Comanche, he was indeed white and could roam as he pleased. The warden had sternly said, “We’ll miss that strong back of yours, boy, but we won’t miss that attitude. You need to figure out what you are and soon. Get out of here and don’t ever give a reason for anybody to put you back here, understand?”

Even with the papers proclaiming him to be his own master, Wasápe felt as though the shackles around his ankles were still there, rubbing the skin until there was nothing but a big bloody mess. His wrists would take time to heal as well; they had not faired any better. He scratched at the scabs, wincing when one tore off, releasing a clear liquid. The wounds were probably infected. He knew he should try and find a river with a nice muddy bottom so he could make a poultice.

Kicking his mustang’s flanks, he continued across the open prairie. Much to his pleasure, he had not encountered a single human being in over a week. The last he had seen was the final guard who handed him the rope that was tethered around the buckskin’s neck. Apparently the warden had felt sorry for him and expressed this pity by giving Wasápe the half-broke, half-starved cayuse. Initially Wasápe was rather put-off by the gesture, but after a few days, the horse and he had made an uneasy truce, and Wasápe realized that this horse really wasn’t too bad. He was actually only a little past colt-hood and was on his way to being a good size. It was hard to tell, since he had been living off of skimpy desert grass and bad water. Wasápe hoped he fattened up soon, for he wasn’t sure how much more of the horse’s protruding spine digging into tender places he could take. Again, he could see another useful white-man invention; anything between him and this torture rack would be welcome, even a cavalry saddle.

Buck, as Wasápe has been calling him since he couldn’t think of anything better, seemed to perk up unexpectedly, his ears turning in all directions and his head coming erect. Wasápe stopped him before easing to the ground carefully to place a hand over the mustang’s nose to prevent him from making a sound. His dark eyes roved across the sweeping grass, but with the wind blowing, it was difficult to hear anything. Nothing out of the ordinary…wait, what was that? At the brink of a hill, Wasápe could just make out a spot of color amongst the drab sandy colors of the prairie. Buck’s gaze was fixed on it as well, a sure sign that this was what was bothering the animal.

After staring for what seemed to be an eternity, Wasápe decided that whatever was over there must either be inanimate or dead, for it had not moved an inch. He jumped up on the buckskin’s back, wincing as healing wounds pulled against new skin. The mustang eased forward slowly, his head swinging back and forth, great snorts of breath enlarging his nostrils. Trusting his horse’s instincts, Wasápe let him pick his own pace while at the same time fingering the handle of his knife. He was roughly 30 yards away when suddenly, an arm in a blue sleeve shot straight up in the air and a hoarse, weak voice called out, “Help, oh help!”

Buck jumped up on his hind legs slightly, but to his credit, did not bolt. Wasápe held on with a little bit of difficulty, and as soon as the horse’s four feet were on the ground, he jumped down, one hand holding the rope and the other, his knife. Leading the horse, he crept forward. Glancing back at his mount, he noticed that Buck had calmed considerably, so Wasápe dropped the rope on the ground, pleased when the horse dropped his head to graze. At least he didn’t have to worry about dragging him around to deal with…whatever was going on up ahead. Turning his eyes forward, he looked at the figure sprawled on his stomach. The man was wearing a blue shirt, black vest, dark pants and no gun. A black, flat-brimmed hat lay on the ground nearby. Wasápe squatted at a safe distance, watching, waiting. Had the man just spent his last bit of strength on that plea? He had not moved an inch since having done so.

Spying a tall seeding clump of Indian grass, Wasápe snapped off one stalk at the base. Scooting a little closer, he held out the feathery end until it just brushed the back of the prone man’s neck. His skin twitched, confirming that he was still alive. Wasápe ran it over the man’s neck again, a bit harder, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard…giggling? “Hee hee, stop that, Colette….”

Wasápe rose into a high crouch, head pivoting. Was there another person out here? Seeing no one, he concluded that the man was out of his head and was imagining he was somewhere else. He shuffled a bit closer before poking the man’s ear with the pointy end of the stalk, who spoke again. “Ow, honey. Really, that’s no way to act.”

Wasápe had enough of being gentle. He reached out one hand and flipped the man over onto his back. That silly chortle bubbled out of his lips again, but this time it went to the edge of being hysterical. Wasápe grimaced at the sight of the man’s face: burned and cracked, there was no question that this poor man had been out here for days without respite from the glaring orb above. Wasápe started to reach for the canteen tied to his belt when the man started to move. His arms roved listlessly at his sides as if feeling for something. When one hand collided with Wasápe’s knee, he grabbed it reflexively. He jerked in surprise when the man’s other hand came over to grab onto their already joined ones. “Colette, mon amour, Je vous ai manqué.” Wasápe watched in amazement as the man stroked the back of the captured hand, tenderly. He tried to retract his hand, but despite the man’s condition, his strength was powerful. The man’s hand was working its way up Wasápe’s arm, pulling, until Wasápe had no choice but to lean forward. His braids swung out freely, dangling over the man’s face. The hand found one and latched on. “Your hair is a soft as I remembered, darling.”

Wasápe snorted loudly at this. As amusing as this was, he really didn’t want it to go any further. He slapped gently at the man’s face. Red lids fluttered open, revealing blood-shot eyes. “Why, Colette, really….” Suddenly the man became lucid. He started to flop about like a fish on dry land. “You’re a…a…AAAAH!!!!” He held his hands defensively over his face. “Please, please, don’t scalp me!”

Wasápe rolled his eyes. These foolish tejanos…well, this one might not be from Texas, actually. His voice had a different sound. When he reached to his waist for the canteen, the crazy person started to raise his fists and strike out. The larger man effortlessly caught a flying hand by the wrist. The man gasped in terror and went completely stiff before wilting in relief when Wasápe pressed the small canteen into his hand.

“You’re…not going to kill me?”

“Only help,” Wasápe grunted. He watched as these words seemed to sink in, for before one drop of water could pass through those chapped lips, the man slumped. It appeared the relief of rescue was too much to stay awake for. Just the same, Wasápe poured a little water into the man’s mouth, which was reflexively swallowed.

Leaning back on his heels, Wasápe shook the canteen next to his ear. It was about half full. The last thing he needed was some sun-sick white boy on his hands, but the memory of his adopted family had been in his mind for days. Ma-Ellen would want him to see that this fool got help.

He groaned. Riding the bony horse bareback wasn’t enjoyable, but he liked walking less. Well, maybe this dude would learn his lesson by getting sawed in half by Buck’s backbone. He tied his canteen back to his belt and put his knife in its sheath. Rolling his broad shoulders to limber up, he considered the man’s slender frame. He’d lifted small rocks that weighed more than this greenhorn.

He pulled the limp body up until the man was propped up on his own feet before ducking into the man’s waist. When Wasápe straightened, the man’s feet were sticking out horizontally, enabling him to put him belly down across the mustang’s back. The unconscious man face bounced against Buck’s ribs, causing the horse to reach back and nip at a dangling arm. Wasápe smirked and grabbed the lead rope, pulling Buck forward. He was glad to see that the white man was staying aboard. Lifting that scrawny frame had pulled at some healing skin, and now he could feel a few warm spots seeping through the back of his shirt.

His eyes were pulled down when his moccasin-clad foot kicked something. The dude’s black hat skittered ahead across the top of the grass, spooking Buck. Wasápe grabbed it up, looking it over. Inside the hat were some words scratched into the leather band. Even though he had re-mastered English during his time with the family, he hadn’t really recovered any memories concerning the written side of the language. The family hadn’t been much on literacy themselves, so he was stuck as an ignorant for the time being.

Since he had yet to give up his Comanche name and those at the prison were too ignorant to pronounce it correctly, on arrival to the prison he had immediately been dubbed “Comanche.” So, on his clothing next to his identification number where his initials should have been was a simple “C”. It was one of the few letters Wasápe knew; therefore, when he saw the writing in the hat, “c” was the only letter he recognized. The words were probably the man’s name, and if this were the case, then the man’s initials were “C.C.”

Wasápe shrugged. He didn’t really care what the man’s name was. If he died, C.C. could go on the marker if wood could be found for one.

Wasápe started to walk again before realizing that he really didn’t know which way he was going. He had intended to just head straight south from Huntsville — he’d always wanted to see the big expanses of water inmates talked about — but his Comanche ties were pulling him west as well. As near as he could tell, he was somewhere between the prison and the Mexico border. He did a sweep with his eyes and noticed what appeared to be the direction the loco man had come from, judging from smashed grass and other markings. The man probably didn’t have the slightest notion where he was going, so Wasápe decided that he’d just take the man along wherever he decided to go. Looking at his shadow for the angle of the sun, he started striding along, covering ground efficiently. Somewhere along the way, that black hat wound up on his head. Couldn’t hurt anything to store it up there, could it? Keep his hands free….

*****

Drowning…he was drowning… He could feel himself sinking, the water closing in all around his body, lapping at his chest, arms, neck. Well, if he were going to die, this was the way to do it, because this felt so good. His body felt incredibly hot, but this water was doing a wondrous job cooling it. Perhaps the heat leaving his body was a sign that his life was fading as well. He really wished he did not have to pass these final moments alone, but it seemed that there was no one around…and yet…there was something, someone, there. Yes, there was a definite presence, for he felt a breath on his neck, a touch on his arm. He smiled, happy for the first time in an eternity. If he were to leave this world, at least there is someone there to care for and about him until he was gone.

Cool water dribbled over his face. He stuck out his tongue to catch a few drops. Metal met his lips at and water poured into his mouth. He drank, greedily, never wanting it to stop. The embrace of this cool water was enough to give him renewed strength. He leaned back and found himself in someone’s embrace. He tried to open his eyes to see who it was, but his eyes were too sore and swollen to open the lids. “Hello,” he croaked, but there was no response. He felt safe and soon settled into a restful sleep.

He woke sometime later, only this time he was lying on his back. He cautiously opened his eyes, pleased when there wasn’t too much pain. He could even barely make out the dawning sky with just a few remaining stars overhead. Over to his left, a small fire was burning. He appeared to be resting on a pile of grass with a blanket covering him.

An oversized buckskin shirt was the only thing he was wearing besides his long-johns, and he felt a little nervous wondering where his boots could have gotten off to.

Somewhere behind his head he heard some splashing and horse sounds. He realized with a jolt that his fevered memories were in fact a reality: he was not alone. He could vaguely recollect snippets of his wandering, but after so long without water, everything had started to blur. The last thing he could remember distinctly was thinking a blood-thirsty Indian was carrying him over a shoulder…and that was completely ridiculous. Just the same, he waited tensely, long fingers toying with the blanket’s edge.

He became aware of a presence just behind him when the hairs on his arms stood up. He listened very carefully but heard nothing but the crackling of the fire. He wanted to call out, to demand an identity, but felt too fearful. But surely if they had done this much for him, they would not be dangerous. He decided to take a risk. Gambling was always his thing.

“Hel…” A bout of coughing interrupted him, so he started again. “Hello, uh, sir. I know you’re here.” I know you’re here? Not very eloquent. “I, I thank you, sir, for helping me. Well, sir, I have been lost out here for days on end and I really expected to die out here.” He thought he heard the person shift or make some other sort of movement, which he took as a cue to continue. “I was beginning to get quite delusional. You wouldn’t believe this, sir, but I envisioned a fearsome Indian warrior rescuing me, and…”

Like a vision from his worst nightmares, on the other side of the fire, loomed the same Indian as the one from what he thought to be just a fever dream. He was wearing only a vest on his torso, revealing skin the color of bronze. As the shadows from the fire played over the man’s impressive physique, the man on the ground shrunk back in terror as these muscles bunched and twisted when the Indian raised one arm. In his hand he held a wicked knife, the firelight playing over the steel blade. Fear rose in the man’s throat as the Indian leaned forward, knife extended, over the fire…to cut into the meat roasting on a spit that he had not noticed until now.

*****

Wasápe carved off a chunk of the jack rabbit. He had listened to what the man had said. Fearsome Indian warrior? White men were all crazy. He stared across the fire at the man who, thankfully, had fallen into silence, big eyes fastened on Wasápe’s knife. Wasápe walked around the fire to crouch at the man’s side. The man flinched when Wasápe held out the knife, off of which dangled a piece of meat. After a brief moment, the man accepted the food, wincing at the heat on his fingers. He cautiously leaned forward until he was propped up on one elbow before attempting to eat a little. “Very good.” He nodded dramatically, his voice too loud and each word drawn out.

Wasápe rolled his eyes. He spat out some Comanche words, saying something to the gist of “I like to race turtles on armadillos.” He almost smiled when the greenhorn gasped in surprise and almost dropped his food.

“No no no no, I no speaky your tongue, noble sir.” The man’s eyes were nearly popping out of his head.

Wasápe shook his head. The time for games was over. “I am Wasápe.”

The man looked relieved to have heard a couple familiar words. “Pleased to meet you, sir. Cooper’s my name.” There was that funny sound to his voice again, like everything was drawn out.

“Cooper?” Wasápe struggled to say. Strange way to say a word. He’d never heard anything like it.

“Something like that,” the man smiled, and Wasápe discovered that he sort of liked the confident grin. It wasn’t like most white men’s smiles; this man’s seemed genuine, actually friendly.

“Cooper,” Wasápe began, noticing the pleased look on the other man’s face when he said his name, “I got some stuff to put on your skin here. It’ll help with the sunburn.”

A herd of buffalo could have fit through Cooper’s open mouth, it had come open so wide. He had nice teeth.

“Yes, yes, I can speak English,” Wasápe groaned before the question was asked. “Now, sit up and I’ll slap some of this on you.”

Cooper looked astounded but managed to struggle up right. Wasápe picked up a piece of bark with the poultice he had mixed up. He scooped some up and applied it to Cooper’s neck, face, and any other place that looked sore.

“You know what, Wa-saw-pay, that does feel rather soothin’,” Cooper drawled. “You’re a right-smart fella to have around.”

Wasápe felt a bit of shock travel through him. Sure, his English was a bit scratchy, but he was still pretty sure that Cooper, a white man, had just paid him a complement. He ducked his head in embarrassment, but winced as the movement tugged at tender places. He tried to hide the discomfort by stirring at the mixture. Cooper was too observant.

*****

The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, revealing the scene with clarity. “Say, friend. Seems to me you’re not so fit yourself.” The large Indian-man was obviously moving stiffly, and as soon as Cooper said those words, Wasápe seemed to get a rather uptight look about him.

Cooper gathered his legs under himself so that he could kneel. “Come here, now, let me have a look at you,” Cooper said as he began doing an undignified crawl while gesturing toward himself with one hand. The movements seemed to make the other man very uneasy, and he started to back away. Cooper was very quick, however, even with his previous exhaustion, and his hand shot out to grab Wasápe’s wrist to stop him. It did more than halt the big man, for Cooper heard him grunt just as Cooper felt hot moisture under his hand. He looked at Wasápe’s face and was alarmed to see the man’s eyes clenched shut, every muscle frozen in a mask of pain. The Indian pulled against Cooper’s grip slightly, but every movement caused more pain to shoot up that muscular arm. “Hey, hey, friend. Calm down now. Just gonna take a look.” Cooper grabbed hold further up the arm with his other hand before he peeled his fingers gently off the wrist. He gave a low whistle. “What have we here….” The skin was mottled with bruises and raw areas, some of which he had accidently opened. Now they were weeping clear liquid mixed with a little blood.

Cooper recognized the injury instantly. He glanced over at the man’s other wrist to confirm. Yes, this man had worn shackles for some time. His eyes roved over the rest of Wasápe’s body. From dark, haunted eyes to the moccasins that looked to be stained with blood seeping from the ankles, Cooper could see the brand of prison. He could even smell it on the poor fellow. Not to say that Cooper himself had ever seen the inside of one, but he had been in the company of many who had. His green eyes went up to meet the other’s brown ones. “How long?”

Wasápe’s eyes turned, studying a tree a distance away. “Long enough to know that the next time I think about proving my manhood, I’ll settle with arm wrestling.” His gaze settled back on Cooper’s face, his expression completely blank. “Or maybe it should be Indian wrestling instead.”

Cooper tried as hard as he could to remain serious, but hearing an Indian make a joke was too rare to be ignored. Soon his hearty laugh rang out, the one few could hear without joining. He was rewarded when Wasápe’s eyes crinkled at the corners. He would take that to as a smile. “You know, Wasápe, I really don’t think I can remember the last time I’ve laughed like this.”

The Indian’s face turned reflective. “I reckon I can’t exactly remember the last time I talked to a white man without wanting to cut his throat.” He fingered his knife as an emphasis of his words.

Cooper felt a chill on his spine. “Aw, now, my friend. It can’t have been that bad. Free food, free beds….” His voice trailed off when he saw the other man’s stoic expression.

Wasápe rose carefully, as if to avoid bending his back at all. “You take a turn there, then. Tell me how you like it after that.”

Cooper struggled to his feet as well, staggering a bit. His legs felt as though they would rather not be in use at the moment, but he was too stubborn to listen to their complaints. “I’d rather not.” He really needed to work on his tact. “Um…say, my sunburn feels rather wretched. What do you say we go on down to that creek there and wash up a bit? That cool water will feel right fine.” He picked up the piece of bark with the poultice and almost toppled when the blood left his head. “Whoops! You know, that reminds me of the time I was on this Mississippi riverboat….”

Cooper continued to prattle on while gingerly walking barefooted over to the creek. He was pleased to notice the brave hovering a few steps behind. He found the man to be incredibly mysterious, and, as an exceedingly curious person, Cooper just could not let “Wa-saw-pay” keep any secrets to himself.

Cooper attempted to straighten the tent-like shirt, wincing as the rough buckskin bit into his tender skin. The garment was so large it kept slipping off one shoulder. He glanced over at his companion and noticed staring at Cooper’s back as it was revealed by the baggy shirt. “Ahem,” he coughed, embarrassed. “I cannot believe that you did not see what is under this entire deerskin when you, uh, removed my own shirt before.”

Now it was the Indian’s turn to be self conscious. Cooper knew that if he told anyone, they would not believe his account of a fierce brave’s face turning bright red. “Well,” he muttered. “You was half burnt. I soaked you in this creek for a spell to cool you down.” He finally peeled his gaze off Cooper’s shoulder. “It was pretty dark then.”

Cooper said nothing, which was rare. Rather, he simply stooped down at the edge of the creek and washed his hands in the water. The poultice itched his face and neck now that it was dry, making him want to wash it off. To do so, it would be helpful to take off the borrowed shirt.

He felt partly humiliated, but knew he should not feel so. He and this enigmatic English-speaking Indian had more in common than what could be expected. Therefore, without ceremony, Cooper pulled the shirt off, fully revealing his torso in the morning sun. He stilled with anticipation, waiting. He heard a slight intake of breath. Cooper looked over at the other man, a small smile on his face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d wager your back looks a little similar to the chicken scratches decorating my own.”

Wasápe crouched a distance from Cooper. “Chicken scratches…,” he murmured. Though Cooper’s injuries were not fresh, they weren’t old either. “You said you’d never been to prison.”

“Well, I haven’t. These beauties were done, shall we say, outside yet inside the law.”

“Huh?”

“I come from a town called New Orleans. Never heard of it? Hm. Well, anyway, I was a very nice gentleman there, good stock, you know. Made money here at there at gaming tables. A gambler can make real money there, with all the card rooms and river boats. Anyway, I also gamble in personal matters…to be specific, in women. Women are just more exciting when a bit of danger is associated with them, don’t you think?” A blank stare was all he received. “Uh, yes, well, plenty of time for that later. The most dangerous girl in town was this cute little Mademoiselle named Colette. We really had a good thing going. She was…she was really something.”

Wasápe frowned. “Why was she dangerous? Was she a woman warrior?”

“No, no, no! Nothing like that…but I won’t dive into details. Anyway, she had a dangerous father. We had to sneak around like alley cats to ever see each other.”

“Seems to me, if you were really interested in having her as your woman, the best idea would be to present her father with a gift. This was how things were done among the People. Horses, weapons, skins…”

“Pardon me, Wasápe, but people just don’t trade for women anymore.” Cooper’s eyes trailed over Wasápe before he said, “Well, at least not in New Orleans…. Anyway, back to my tale of woe. Her father discovered us in a rather compromising situation…and she had some very large brothers…and, well, you can see the results.” He thumbed toward his back. “Lashed me with a buggy whip and ran me outta town faster than an elixir salesman.”

Cooper washed off the poultice, relishing the cool water on his skin. “And that’s how come I wandered out here. Figured I couldn’t make a living there anymore. Thought I would try my hand around Mexico. Learned Spanish from some pretty little Senorita once…but that’s another story.” He got to his feet, wobbling a bit. He held out the massive shirt in two hands, feeling awkward in only long-john bottoms. “This is a right-fine garment, sir. I thank you for allowing me to borrow it.”

Wasápe held out a hand for it, but Cooper snatched it back. “Nah-ah-ah!” He shook one finger in Wasápe’s direction. “You took care of me. Now I will return the favor.” He gestured at the piece of bark with the poultice. “I think that would do the trick for other injuries besides sun burn.” Cooper bent, laying out the shirt like a blanket close to the fire. Kneeling beside and patting it, he said, “Lay down here, my good man, on that impressive chest of yours. Oh, and take off your vest.”

Wasápe looked as though he was going to bolt for the hills, his mouth fixed in a stubborn thin line. Cooper put on his most trustworthy face, one that worked on hesitant women. “Come on, I ain’t gonna bite.”

Incredibly uncomfortable, Wasápe knelt in front of the shirt, still watching Cooper warily. “How can I hurt you?” the southerner said, reassuringly. “You’re twice my size, not to mention I am half-starved and mostly naked to boot. No weapons here,” Cooper promised. He held up his hands in a subservient position.

Wasápe blew out a breath before slowly reaching for the edges of his vest. He pulled it off, grunting a few times, his face contorting. By the time he got it off, he was panting and looked pale. He looked deep into Cooper’s face, searching for deceit. Apparently he found none, for he eased himself down onto his stomach, coming to a rest with a sigh, his chin resting on his crossed arms.

Cooper’s suspicions were confirmed, to his regret. Wasápe must have either been a trouble-maker or a target by some vengeful guard, or a combination of the two. There weren’t very many inches of skin on the man’s back that wasn’t marked in some way, be it bruises or signs of floggings. Most of the bruising was beginning to fade into a sickly yellowish-green, but the lacerations looked to be very deep and had probably never been treated. A few had scabbed over, trapping infection beneath. “Ah…,” Cooper began, nervously. He knew he had to open up those areas, but he also knew that Wasápe was a dangerous man and did not want to cause him any pain…for that could be hazardous to Cooper’s health.

Wasápe turned his head, one eye squinting at Cooper. “Everybody in that stinkin’ place rode me hard, just ‘cause of my Comanche ways. Even the other prisoners set me up for things I didn’t do.” He turned his face forward again. “Whatever you have to do can’t hurt me any more than some of the things that went on in there. Don’t know why I’m trustin’ you, but I am. Just get it over with.”

Cooper, feeling butterflies in his stomach, went near the fire and found Wasápe’s knife sticking in the ground. He wiped the blade on his long-johns before sticking it into the flames to sanitize it. He came back over to the man on the ground, whose eyes were staring straight ahead with an unfocused quality to them. “He must be retreating to a place in his mind,” Cooper thought. He often did the same thing when situations were too painful to confront head-on.

The knife had cooled enough to begin. Cooper took a deep breath. “I’m going to start now.” He received no response, so he took it as permission to begin. He chose a particularly festered looking slash and, holding his breath, drew the knife along the length of it. Wasápe’s back muscles bunched in reaction, causing yellow puss and blood to come pulsing out of the wound. “Sorry!” Cooper exclaimed.

“Just…get…on with it,” Wasápe said through clenched teeth.

Cooper swallowed hard and continued with the process. He sliced open all the cuts that looked like they needed lanced, then did the best he could to wash out all the pus and other debris. Finally, he was finished. He rubbed the poultice over all the open wounds before sitting back, breathing almost as hard as Wasápe. He looked at his hands, studying the mess that covered them. They started to shake, so he put them down.

“Cooper.”

“Y-yes,” Cooper stammered, feeling fatigue tug at him.

“What do you say we just take ourselves a little break here by this creek for a while. We can see Mexico another day.”

We? Cooper wondered where that collective word had come from, but he didn’t reflect on it for long. “That sounds marvelous, my friend. Let’s rest.

The two new friends lay side by side, completely calm and relaxed in one another’s presence. They were resting…finally resting.

*****

The cattle rushed toward the fresh water, bawling and shoving. Cries from cowboys filled the air along with the sounds of bovine. “Don’t let them rush it!” “Get those stragglers!” “Watch that you don’t tip the chuck wagon into that wash!”

A little man in a flat-brimmed hat and beard hauled up on the reins. “Tip the wagon?! Why, I’ve been driving a team long before you were you born, you whippersnapper!”

“Now, now, Wish, take it easy,” a pleasant-faced youth with blue eyes said plaintively. “I’m just watching out for you, that’s all.”

“Just watching out for your stomach, that’s what, ‘cause who would feed y’all if I ended up smashed in a gully?”

“I reckon I could take a crack at it, Mr. Wishbone,” a boyish voice chimed in earnestly.

“Shut up, Mushy!”

“Yessir, Mr. Wishbone. I’ll be real quiet.”

G.W. Wishbone rolled his eyes. “And you, Rowdy Yates, you better find me a suitable crossing if you want any fresh biscuits tonight!”

The cowboy grinned broadly. “Aw, Wish, since when have your biscuits ever been anything but?”

“Well.” The man’s bearded chin jutted another inch in the air. “That’s more like it. Now, quit jawin’ and get a move on!”

“Yes sir!” The lanky cowboy spurred his frisky sorrel forward, away from the herd, parallel to the gully where the creek ran.

It wasn’t before long when Rowdy found what looked to be a nice place for the wagon to cross. It looked as though someone had knocked down the banks on both sides, a past trail drive maybe. He trotted Fox down to the creek to give the horse a much-deserved drink. Ol’ Wish could wait a few minutes longer.

A snap of a branch behind him drew his eyes up from his horse and his hand to his gun. Heart hammering in his ears, he sighed in relief when he saw that it was only a rawboned mustang. Stepping out of the saddle, Rowdy reached out to the horse, surprised when it stood tamely. At this point, he noticed a loose rope tied around the buckskin’s neck. He recognized the style of knots instantly…Comanche! Rowdy gulped, suddenly anxious to be away. He turned back to Fox, intent to return to the herd and safety…

“Howdy.”

Rowdy nearly jumped a foot in the air. There before him stood an unarmed white man. He was a few inches shorter than Rowdy and was roughly the same age. He relaxed a notch before answering. “Howdy yourself. Mister, you better get out of here. See this horse here?”

“Well, of course. What about him?”

The man did not seem to be concerned at all. Rowdy tried to explain the situation. “This horse looks to me to be a Comanche’s. There’s bound to be a buck that rides him nearby. If you want, you can follow me back to the herd I’m with. We need to warn them!”

“There’s no need to worry, friend. This is in fact a Comanche’s horse.”

“How…how do you know that?” Rowdy was getting uneasy, like there were eyes on him. He looked around nervously.

“I know it because the Comanche is a friend of mine…and he’s standing right there.”

Rowdy whipped around. No wonder he felt he was being watched, because, sure enough, a Comanche brave stood at a short distance from him. Rowdy pulled his gun instantly. “Now, hold on, both of you. I don’t know what’s goin’ on, but I think I’ll feel a lot better if you both put your hands up in the air and step together.”

The white man was standing in Rowdy’s periphery, so he attempted to angle himself so he could see both of them clearly. “I don’t want any trouble. Like I said, I’m with a herd. They’re gonna come lookin’ for me if I don’t show up.”

The white man raised his hands before stepping closer to the Comanche. “Now, who said anything about trouble? Me and my friend have been following this creek for days trying to keep from starving to death. We don’t have but the one horse between us.”

Rowdy didn’t know if he should believe him, but that beguiling face was making it difficult to not, and despite the Comanche’s muscular build, his face had a clear and unthreatening look. Rowdy was slightly surprised when the man spoke. “If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t been with the Comanches for years…and my folks were white.”

This Rowdy believed. The man really didn’t have the face of a Comanche; the clothes and hair just made the rest of him look the part. “Well…if you wait here, I can go get my boss. He’ll talk to you.”

“Thank you,” the shorter one said. “But I think we’ll come along. Won’t hurt Buck if we ride him double just for a short while, will it?”

“Reckon not, Chad.”

The bigger man jumped up first before grabbing Chad’s arm to help him up. “Lead on, friend,” Chad said, his mouth fixed in charming smile like it was the only shape it knew how to make.

“What is Mr. Favor gonna say when I ride in with these two strays?”

*****

“Where in the blue blazes did you find them?”

Rowdy winced. Yep, Mr. Favor wasn’t exactly pleased. “Well, boss, I just couldn’t just leave them out there. Besides, they’re harmless.”

“Harmless!”

“Well, yeah. They both had the drop on me, but they didn’t do nothin’.”

“You almost make me wish they had…” Mr. Favor muttered darkly. He took in the two strangers wolfing down some leftovers like they hadn’t eaten in days…and maybe they really hadn’t. He said to Rowdy, “You and your strays….Well, nothing can be done for it now. We are short handed. See if either of those…gentlemen know anything about herding beeves.”

Rowdy grinned. “Thanks Mr. Favor, they’ll do just fine.”

“We’ll see.”

Rowdy went over to the two men. The smaller man, the one the other called Chad, had finished eating. Rowdy poured him a cup of coffee. “Thanks,” the man said jovially. “Can’t say the last time I had good coffee.” He took a sip and grimaced. “Well, coffee, anyway.”

“Wish sometimes don’t clean out the grounds from the last pot. Says it makes the coffee go further. Just don’t let him hear any whining or you’ll be wearing that coffee instead of drinkin’ it.”

The two shared a light chuckle. Rowdy poured himself a cup and sat on a stump. He sipped at the brew, his blue eyes studying the two men. They were as different as night and day. Chad was classy, used fine English, and moved with an air of confidence that was common in people who had complete surety in themselves. He was wearing what appeared to have been a gambler’s attire with fine slacks, a frilly shirt, and a silk vest. All were in terrible condition. A dapper hat sat on the back of his head, wavy brown-black peeking from under the crown. A week-old beard covered the man’s face, but Rowdy could tell it was smooth and young without the lines common to men who spent time outside. This man had the mark of being a town dude, born and bred.

Anything said about Chad would essentially be the opposite if compared to his companion. Except for the fact that they appeared to be a similar age and their hair was almost the same color, these men had almost nothing in common. Wasápe, Rowdy thought his name was, was perhaps one of the most muscular men the cowboy had ever seen. The man’s build reminded Rowdy of a poster for a circus man who could bend bands of steel. He wasn’t particularly taller than average, at least in comparison to Rowdy himself, but he looked as though he probably outweighed any man in camp by at least 40 pounds of muscle. He was wearing typical Comanche regalia and a deadly knife in a sheath on one leg. His long hair was in two braids, giving any person the impression he was 100 percent red man. However, he himself had told Rowdy what the young man could plainly see now. That bronze skin was dark because of time outdoors, not bloodlines.

The man must have felt Rowdy’s gaze, for their eyes met. Rowdy felt pulled into those eyes, so dark and mysterious. They were framed by fine lines that told of many long hours spent squinting in harsh Texas sun. If either of the two would make it as a working cowhand, this was probably the one.

They maintained eye contact for an immeasurable amount of time before someone said, “Alright, give it up, mister. Your eyes will dry up and turn to dust before you can get ol’ ‘Sápe to blink.”

Rowdy jumped, startled, noticing Chad’s grinning face. Rowdy rubbed his chest in a nervous gesture. “Uh, right. Mr. Favor wanted me to ask you what kind of experience y’all have.”

Chad responded first. “Well, speaking for myself, I have not exactly spent much time in this type of work, but I consider myself to be an adequate rider and marksman.” Chad did have a horseman’s narrow hips and lean muscular build, and those slender fingers were like that of a gunman.

Rowdy nodded before turning to the other. “I reckon I don’t have to ask about your skill with horses…but I have to ask how much experience you have with, uh….”

“I’m not much with guns, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at,” Wasápe said, coolly. “Funny how they don’t encourage target practice out on the reservation.”

Rowdy felt embarrassed again. “Well, nothin’ like experience to teach a man.” His mind made up, he fetched the account book from the wagon. “Y’all have to tell me your names, so I can put them in this here book.” He squinted at them, suddenly uncertain. “You ain’t wanted for nothin’ are you?”

Chad laughed, maybe a bit too loudly. “No, nobody wants us for anything, right, pard?” Wasápe said nothing, his face like stone. “Heh, heh,” Chad laughed, elbowing his friend in the side. “Quit teasing the man! We are the most law-abiding citizens this side of the Mississippi! Sign us up!”

Rowdy raised an eyebrow but flipped through the ledgers until he came to the crew roster, licking the pencil’s end. “Your name is….”

“Chad Cooper, that’s C-H-A-D C-O-O-P-E-R, pleased to meet you.”

Rowdy mouthed the letters as he wrote them out. He looked up to Wasápe, but before the man could speak for himself, Chad butted in. “How would you spell your name, ‘Sápe?”

The big man looked between the two that were staring at him expectantly. “I…don’t rightly know. Never had cause to write it out before, not like I could, no-how.”

Rowdy instantly felt bad for him, for he looked so dismayed. Chad rescued his friend, a moment which warmed Rowdy’s heart. “Say, pard,” Chad began, almost gently. “Remember how you were telling me that you recalled your old name, the one you had before you became a Comanche?” Wasápe nodded. “How about using that? I bet it would be a heck of a lot easier for poor Mr. Yates here to write.”

“But Chad, I only can recollect the first part. Folks have family names, don’t they? I ain’t got one.”

“That, my friend, is easy to fix. Out here in the wide open, people pick their names all the time.”

“Don’t seem right, just usin’ some name that don’t mean nothin’.”

“Well, pick one that means something! I once knew this man who named himself after the town he was born in. Uh, ‘Johnny…Yuma…?’ Something like that.”

Wasápe shook his head, deep in thought. “I gotta put something, mister,” Rowdy said.

Wasápe looked up, his expression sad. “Make it Joe…Joe Riley.”

“Joe Riley!” Chad exclaimed. “Where did that come from? Though I do like the sound of it.”

“Joe’s my real name, Chad. As for Riley…well, that was the family name of somebody I used to know.”

“I bet it was a woman! I knew it all the time, Wasápe, I mean Joe, is a lady’s man. Yessir!”

Rowdy ignored the cackling gambler and wrote the name in the ledger. “There,” he turned the book around to face the newly named man. “How’s that look?”

Joe Riley squinted down at the page. “Looks…right.”

*****

Gil Favor rubbed his chin in disgust. After a few weeks on the trail, the hands were due a trip into town. He hated letting these fools run off and waste their earnings, but what could he do? He watched the men as they gussied themselves up, combing their hair and breaking out clean shirts.

“Here I am, Mr. Favor.” Gil’s eyes were drawn forward to meet those of young Chad Cooper, the man Rowdy had found wandering with an enigmatic companion almost three weeks ago. Both men had surprisingly settled into the life as trail hands rather quickly, though not without a bit of trouble. The one called Joe Riley wasn’t quick to anger, but when it came, an old silver-tipped grizzly didn’t hardly have teeth as sharp. Cooper riled much more easily but could talk himself out of hairy situations with that silver tongue. The man in question was waiting expectantly in front of his boss, his weight shifting back and forth.

“Fifteen dollars, Cooper. If I were you, I’d spend that money on some trail clothes that actually fit you and a rig of your own so I don’t have to worry about you losing one of mine. I’ll spot you if the cost’s too high until next payday.”

Both of the new men had been using borrowed rifles and pistols for protection, but Favor figured they could find some suitable outfits for themselves. He doled out the greenbacks and watched the younger man’s face light up. “Wishbone will accompanying you to be sure you head straight to the mercantile. Can’t have your outfitting bankroll getting taken at the poker tables before you buy what you need.”

Favor tried not to smile too obviously as Cooper’s face fell. He glumly stuffed the money into his pocket before turning away. Last to receive money was Joe Riley, formerly known as Wasápe. He still looked very much like a Comanche, making Favor uneasy. Though they were a distance from Comanche territory, most folk had more than a general idea what the tribe looked like. There could be trouble in town. Favor decided to just come out and say what was on his mind. “Howdy, Riley. Got fifteen dollars coming. I reckon you heard what I told Cooper. Same goes for you…and I have some clothes you can borrow to wear into town so you won’t get into any trouble…and a hat to cover that long hair.”

Riley had come a long way since first joining up. At first, the men had been distant, uneasy at his Indian looks. Soon, all of those feelings were trampled with the dust of the drive. Hard work drove men together. Besides, Joe, though at first guarded and quiet, had a keen sense of humor and could often be heard joking with Chad or Mushy, even with Wishbone. The old man had formed a fierce protective attitude toward Riley and would berate any of the other hands for giving him a hard time.

“That’s alright, boss. I’ll manage,” Riley said. He looked relaxed about the whole thing, but Favor knew that it had been a long time since the boy had seen a real town.

“Alright, but Wishbone will be there if you need any help with anything.”

Riley nodded before turning on his heel to follow after Cooper, that panther grace carrying his muscular frame silently over the dry ground.

*****

Joe watched the men get ready. He looked on as a little cowboy named Quince was combing his hair. Looking down, Joe fingered his own long hair. A decision came quickly to his mind. He walked resolutely toward the chuck wagon. Wish was primping up himself, reminding Joe of a rooster. The grizzly man glanced over at Joe and continued with his washing. “What’s on your mind, boy? Gettin’ ready to head into town with the rest of the boys?”

“That’s just it Mr. Wishbone, I’d like to ask you something.”

Wish dried himself with a raggedy towel. “Well, what is it?”

Joe felt like he was jumping into an icy pond when he asked abruptly, “Wish, will you cut my hair?”

Wishbone nearly knocked over his wash pan. “Cut your hair! What do I look like, a barber? And besides, I thought you didn’t cut your hair.”

“I…I think it’s time I started. I ain’t a Comanche no-more, and a cowboy shouldn’t have hair longer than a cow’s tail.”

Wish shrugged. “Well, alright. Sit down on that wagon tongue there and I’ll get out my shears.”

Joe complied, balancing on the shaft of wood.

Wish stepped over, shears and comb at the ready. He leaned in close to Joe’s face. “Are you sure, boy, that this is what you want? ‘Cause once I start, there ain’t no turnin’ back.”

Joe just nodded once, staring at the dust under his feet.

“Well, alright then.”

Joe held his breath and clenched his legs with his fingers so tight it hurt. He felt like he was betraying his people by doing this, by turning to the white man’s ways…but he was white. It was time to let go of the past and to look toward the future. The Indians’ ways were on the brink of being lost forever, and if Joe wanted to make a place in the world, it would be best to accept his heritage and become his own man. His life as a Comanche would shape him into the man he would become now. Cutting his hair was just one step down the road to the rest of his life.

*****

Wishbone put the comb in his teeth before taking one braid in his hand. Snip. The long hair came loose and fell limply in his hand. Joe gave a rattling sigh but did not move. Snip. Wishbone draped both braids over the wagon tongue. He had felt the impact of what had just happened almost as clearly as if it were happening to himself. He took the comb out of his mouth, his voice shaky when he said, “I’ll just trim it up now real nice for you.”

Joe nodded once, his entire body relaxing now that the anticipation was over. Wishbone attempted to lighten the atmosphere by chatting about the events that could quite possibly happen in town, the things to see, the people to avoid and places not to go. He almost had run out of things to say, a rarity for him, when he was finally finished. He really wanted this first haircut to be a good one, and he had done a fair job. He retrieved a mirror and held it out to Joe. “Here you go, boy. You look just right dandy, if I do say so myself.”

Joe held the mirror at arm’s length, afraid to look. Finally, he turned to see his image. He fingered the short locks. “I…thank you, Mr. Wishbone. It looks real good.” He shook his head in amazement. “I look so different, like I hardly am myself anymore.”

“Aw, shucks, boy, you might look different on the outside, but you’re the same fella on the inside, and that’s what counts. No little haircut’s gonna change that.”

The young man smiled lightly before holding the mirror out to Wish. “I reckon I better finish gettin’ ready. Chad’ll be rarin’ to go.”

Wish watched the boy go. He shook his head. “Strange boy, but a fine one for sure.” He turned back to continue his own preparations. The braids were gone.

*****

When Chad found Joe later, he hardly recognized him. “Joe, is that you?”

In reality, his friend really didn’t look that much different. He was still wearing his buckskin clothing, but the distinctly-Comanche loincloth and vest were gone…as was the man’s long hair.

“Shoot, Chad, you act as though I was half-naked or somethin’.”

“Well, you practically are without those two pigtails you been toting around since I met you!”

They were interrupted by Rowdy. “Hey, are you two fellas ready to go?” He took Joe’s appearance in half a glance. “Nice haircut, Riley. Suits you.”

Joe’s face was graced with a pleasant smile, one Chad hardly ever saw. He grinned in return. “Of course we are! Just you wait, Joe. I’ll show you how to have a good time.”

“Remember what Mr. Favor said, Chad,” Joe said seriously. “We gotta go straight to the mercantile.”

“Oh…right. I guess there’s always next payday.”

They mounted up on some horses from the remuda. Buck was tired after a lot of hard hours on the trail, and Chad had yet to purchase his own mount. That would have to wait until the next payday, too.

Chad joined in with the rest of the cowboys when, with a hoop and a holler, they charged out of camp like the barn was on fire. He looked over his shoulder to see Joe hanging back with Wishbone and the supply wagon. He shrugged. Joe didn’t know what he was missing.

*****

Joe and Wishbone arrived into town around 30 minutes after the main group of cowboys. Wishbone could already hear them wasting their money in the saloon. “Humph. Fools, the lot of them.” He looked over at the single cowboy who had ridden with him, Joe Riley. The young man’s face showed a mixture of amazement and uncertainty. His eyes were moving around quickly, lighting on everything, like he hadn’t seen any of it before. The fact was probably true, from what Wishbone had gathered on the boy’s past.

“Well, come on, boys, don’t have all day. Mushy, I’ll need you to help me load up supplies in a while. Meanwhile, go and find that Chad Cooper. He needs to get hisself over here, boss’ orders.” They climbed down from the wagon seat while Joe tied up his horse to the hitching rail. Mushy went toward the first saloon while Joe and Wish entered the mercantile door together. Joe was staring at everything, touching bolts of fabric, peering into cases, his mouth gaping. Wishbone grabbed his elbow and steered him over to the men’s clothing. He waved at the clerk, a young lady with blonde hair. “Excuse me, miss. I’ve got a fella here who needs some ready-made work clothes. Think you could fix him up?”

She was as pretty as a painted pony. “Of course, sir. We have clothes of all styles and sizes…though I might have go in the back to find a shirt which matches his measurement.” She blushed when she beheld Joe’s shoulders and arms and the way they stretched his buckskin shirt. The boy just gawked at her like a love-sick pup.

Wishbone rolled his eyes. “Thank you kindly, miss.” He elbowed Joe in the ribs, nudging him toward the table of pants. The young lady came forward, a tape measure in her hands. “If you’ll just stand here, for a moment.” She didn’t wait for him to respond, but placed the end of the tape against Joe’s hip and let the other end fall to the floor.

“Mmhmm…these over here should be long enough for you.” She directed him toward one end of the table. He looked at the stacks of folded pants, a helpless expression on his face. She smiled at his hesitation. “Here, how about these?” She held up some light tan trousers that looked like they would cover those long legs. Joe took them from her and held them up to his waist, letting them hang down to his feet. “Uh, yeah, seem fine, ma’am.”

Her smile broadened, revealing dimples. “Please, call me Katy, everybody does. How about we find some shirts now?” He nodded mutely.

Wishbone continued his own shopping, checking on the boy every once in a while. The girl was getting him fixed up with a couple shirts, even making comments on which ones would look best with his complexion, which Wish was sure was a word Joe didn’t understand. Finally, Joe was ready to try on his selections. He went into a room in the back, returning a short time later wearing the tan pants and a patterned red calico shirt. He looked like a completely different person, and in spite of himself, Wishbone’s eyes popped at the sight. “You look like a real cowboy now, boy, for sure!”

Joe smiled shyly. His hands rubbed the legs of his new pants nervously. “I really look alright?”

The young lady came from behind a counter, her face beaming. “You look wonderful! I just knew that was your color. While you were trying those on, I took the liberty in looking for boots. I think you might like these.” In her hand was a pair of light tan cowboy boots. However, what made these special was that on the outside of the boot were silver conchos with leather fringe dangling out of each, reminding all of Joe’s previous outfit.

He stared at them, a bit of wonder on his face. “I can’t remember the last time I wore boots,” he murmured.

“Here, try them on. Oh, and here’s some socks too.”

Joe seated himself and pulled on the socks and boots. They went on fairly easily; they were soft leather, not unlike his moccasins. He tucked his pants inside to fully show off the conchos. He stood and walked around in them, swaggering like he had worn them for years.

Katy giggled behind a hand. Wish said, “They sure do suit you, boy.” Joe looked so happy it nearly was enough to make an old crusty coyote like Wishbone shed a tear — almost, not quite.

*****

Joe looked at himself in a long mirror, admiring himself with his new outfit. He buckled his own beaded Comanche belt onto the trousers. He noticed something on the pants that he had not before. He asked Katy, “What’s this here on the leg? Some sort of pocket?”

She looked at what he was indicating. “I think we made those custom for this man a while back, but he never picked them up.” She frowned, her adorable nose crinkling. “I think he got arrested or something. Anyway, I think it’s for a knife. This man was into carrying his knife like that instead of in a sheath like you do.”

The pocket looked to be almost the same size as his antler-handled blade. Was worth a try, but he would do it later.

Wishbone came forward, more socks and a set of men’s drawers in his hands, along with a razor and comb. He set them on the counter. “How much for all’a this stuff, miss?”

Katy figured the total up on a scrap of paper. “It all comes to… 10 dollars and 2 bits.”

Joe felt he had been hit in the gut. His pay had seemed like a fortune, but this would take most of it. He had no idea the world was so expensive.

Wishbone snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot. Mr. Favor wanted you to pick out a rig, too. But we’ll spot you on that until next payday.”

“Over here, gentlemen,” Katy said, opening a glass case with hand guns displayed.

Wishbone looked them over. He pulled out a pistol with a wooden handle. “Colt .45, standard gun for cowboys. Here, try it,” the old man held it out to Joe, who took it gingerly. He’d held and shot guns before, but had never needed to judge a gun for his own person use.

“All our guns have been tested by a local gunsmith. He checks them all to be sure they are in working order. He was impressed with that one. Said it had been well cared for,” Katy informed the two men.

“How much?” Wish asked.

“15 dollars, with a complementary box of shells.”

Joe’s eyes might have burst from his head. That was his entire pay, right there! Wishbone didn’t seem fazed. He merely nodded and took the gun back from Joe’s hand, testing the balance for himself. “A real nice gun, here. Reasonably priced, too. This the one you want, boy?”

Joe nodded mutely. He doubted he’d have any money left by the end of the drive that wouldn’t automatically defer to Mr. Favor. Wishbone wasn’t done, either. “Pick yourself out a rig to put it in, sonny, unless you fancy stickin’ it your pants.”

Joe followed his direction and looked over a few holsters, quickly settling on a simple, dark brown one with a pattern stitched on the back in white thread. Joe buckled it around his trim hips, wondering at how good it felt, so natural. Wish handed him the gun, which he settled into the holster, the weight of it strangely comforting. Wishbone pointed at his leg. “Them strings there, use them to tie it down.”

Joe did as commanded. Standing up straight again, he looked at the two helpful people before him, shyly smiling. Katy beamed at him, her hands clasped over her chest. “You look…amazing!” She blushed profusely after her outburst, an action that was mirrored by Riley. He could have stood there all day, just staring at her, but the moment was interrupted by a clatter of boots on the boardwalk. He reflexively turned around, his hand going for the knife that wasn’t there. However, it was just Mushy and Chad.

“Well, it’s about time!” Wishbone was not pleased.

“Sorry, Mr. Wishbone, but I couldn’t hardly get him to leave the saloon,” Mushy said, his youthful face worried.

Cooper didn’t look the least bit concerned. “Hey, Joe, I tripled my earnings!” He started forward, some bills in hand, before he stopped mid-stride. “Whoa, look at you, boy! I hardly knew it was you — again! You better stop changing yourself so much, or I won’t be able to keep track of you.” Chad strode forward slowly, his eyes trailing Joe’s length. He circled completely around the tall man. He let out a low whistle. “You look right dandy, pard.” He leaned back, his hand on his chin in thought. “Something’s missing, though….” Suddenly, his hand flashed to the side, coming back to put something on top of Joe’s head. “There,” Chad exclaimed. He grabbed one of Joe’s arms and turned him toward the mirror. “How do you like that? Now it’s perfect.”

Joe beheld himself with amazement for yet another time. Chad had impulsively selected a rather large cowboy hat, a tan one with a curved brim and a plain dark leather band. It sat comfortably on his newly shorn hair, its brim plenty wide to shade him from the sun and the color light to keep him from getting too hot. He was so staggered by his appearance he just stood motionless, staring at himself for a long time. Once, he had felt pride in his Comanche clothes and hair…and now, that same pride was welling in his chest at the sight of his new identity. He felt a bit of uncertainty, however. Was this who he was supposed to be, a cowboy, forever punching bovines on the trail? He just wasn’t sure. In truth, he felt more lost than when he had first left the reservation all those years ago.

*****

The small group was finishing up at the store. Cooper had taken his own sweet time picking out his working outfit: a light blue shirt, high-heeled shiny boots, fancy spurs, and dark grey pants and vest. He topped it all off with a bright blue bandanna around his neck and a black tooled cross-draw holster with matching belt for his trousers. On top of his wavy mop he had donned a flat-topped Stetson with a smaller brim and stampede string. “Mm-mm,” he murmured as he admired himself in the mirror, turning this way and that. Joe watched nearby, leaning against the wall, arms crossed, with one foot crossed over the other at the ankle. He shook his head, bemused.

“Excuse me, Dude Cooper,” Wishbone growled. “I’d like to get some me woman-cooking sometime soon, so if you could finish up, I would appreciate it.”

“Not to worry, my good man,” Cooper said, and cockily strutted over to where the camp cook was standing. “I will be finished momentarily, just as soon as I pick out a nice pistol here.” He flashed a charming smile in Katy’s direction. “Excuse me, miss, but would you have any suggestions?”

Katy was not immune to the southerner’s beguiling demeanor. She touched her cheek self-consciously. “I believe you’ll find one you’ll like in this case here.”

The guns were in a different case than the one Joe’s had come from. These were finer, more expensive, all laid out on a bed of black velvet. Chad saw one that immediately drew his eye. It had a pearl handle, and when he picked it up, he noticed that the guard and sight had been filed down. Perfectly balanced, this was a gunfighter’s weapon. It fit his hand like it was custom made for him. He twirled it around his finger, flipping it forward then back, and rolled the cylinder over his arm, listening carefully to the clicks for any irregularities. Flipping it a few more times, he then slid it into his holster, his hand stroking the butt with fondness. He looked back at the girl, all playfulness gone. “This one will suit me fine, thank you.”

The young lady stared at him with an open mouth, and around him stillness had settled over the store. He threw his entire wad of cash on the counter. “This ought to cover everything, plus a few boxes of cartridges.” When the girl failed to move, he grabbed the boxes himself, stuffing them into the bundle of his old clothes. He tugged on the brim of his new hat and turned on his heel and strode away, spurs jingling.

*****

Katy blinked a few times before gathering up the money the young man had left in front of her. The register clanged as she opened the drawer. She put the greenbacks inside in their respective slots, putting some in the wrong places and having to correct herself.

She turned back to her remaining customers, trying to muster a smile, but found she was having a hard time doing so. The youngest of them, a boy in a Confederate forager cap, looked at her concernedly. “Are you alright, ma’am? You look kinda peak-ed.”

Katy ran a hand over her apron, flattening imaginary wrinkles. “Yes, I’m alright.”

The boy’s question drew the attention of the old man. “Are you sure, miss?” He looked so kind; she couldn’t help but ask what was plaguing her. “Um…well, actually, what was that man’s name? Chad something?”

The big, handsome one against the wall suddenly stood up straight, his eyes wide and questioning. However, it was the old man who answered. “Sure is, Chad Cooper is what he’s callin’ himself.”

A bitter, metallic taste filled her mouth. “I suppose you must think I’m very silly, I mean, most men these days can handle a gun….”

“But not like that,” the big man said, his mouth hard and frowning.

Katy shook her head, not wanting to believe it. “I used to live south of here, close to the Gulf. A man came into town one afternoon. A disagreement happened in the saloon where he was playing poker…guns were drawn, and the man was killed. His name was Ace Reynolds.”

The boy gasped. “Ace Reynolds! Why, he’s supposed to be the fastest draw in Texas! Well, used to be, I guess.”

The old man scoffed. “I heard that story. He was caught cheatin’. What’s that got to do with Chad?”

“On the same day, another man rode into town. According to the story, he was real gallant and smooth, dressed like a gambler and talked like a gentleman. It was this man that noticed Ace was cheating. Called him out on it…and out-drew Ace, killing him in a fair fight.”

The big man was unexpectedly in her sight, having come to her counter unnoticed. “His name?” he whispered, as if afraid to ask.

“C.J. Cooper.

All three customers mouthed the name, as if tasting it. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the same man,” Katy started to say.

“But not many that can handle a gun like that and also go by the name of Cooper,” the old man finished. “We have no way of knowing if he’s the same Cooper, unless we ask him.” He turned toward the big man. “Joe, you’ve been trail partners with him for a while, right? He say anything about where he’s from?”

Joe shook his head slowly. “Not much, except he used to live in a town called New…somethin’.”

“New Orleans?” Katy guessed.

“Maybe. Sounds familiar. But if Chad doesn’t want me to know about his life before we met up, then that’s his business. There’s a lot of stuff I ain’t told him ‘bout me, and he doesn’t ask. So if he’s a gunfighter, I reckon I’ll still stay pards with him. Shucks, if I found out he’s a no-good dry-gulcher, I’d still be pards with him. He’s just that kind of pard.”

*****

The rest of the drive went by without much to be remembered. Few beeves were lost, and all cowboys arrived safely in Dodge City, Kansas. The men were paid outside of town. Last in line were Chad and Joe.

“Cooper and Riley….” Favor made a few notes in his book. He counted out coins into two piles. Before handing them over, he looked up at the men. “You boys have come a long way since you were staggering through the plains like a couple of lost sheep.” His eyes settled on Joe. “Especially you, Riley. Both of you have turned out to be top hands. If you’re looking for work, I’m heading back to Texas for another herd immediately. Still have time for one more this season.”

“Ah…,” Chad said, looking a Joe. A silent conversation seemed to pass between them. Joe looked back at the trail boss. “We’ll talk it over, let you know.”

Favor handed over their money. “Well, alright, but you fellas are great hands. Hate to lose you.”

“Well, shucks, boss. Flattery! Never thought I’d hear it from you,” Chad exclaimed.

“Keep goin’, Chad, and we never will again,” advised Joe seriously.

Favor nodded, a small smile creeping over his lips. “He might have a point there, Cooper.”

“Uh huh,” Chad nodded. He held out a hand to shake. “We’ll see you in town, Mr. Favor.”

They walked companionably toward where the horses were tied. “Care if I ride behind you into town, pard?”

“You really need to get your own horse, and soon.”

“Just haven’t found the right one yet.”

Joe rubbed Buck’s neck fondly. “Well, I didn’t pick ol’ Buck, but we get along real nice, don’t we, boy?” The horse leaned into his touch.

Chad shook his head in amazement. “If only I had that touch, only with ladies!”

Joe cocked an eyebrow. Chad didn’t have any trouble at all with women. With his fair eyes and curly hair, he looked like a lost orphan waiting to be comforted in a woman’s arms.

He led Buck toward the edge of camp, passing the chuck wagon. Wishbone looked as grouchy as usual, so Joe decided to attempt a sneaky break. No such luck, for the older man had the ears of one much younger. “Just where do you think you’re off to?”

“Town, Mr. Wishbone. Then after that is up to the wind,” Chad said with dramatic flair.

“Wind, my foot. You two ain’t thinkin’ of leavin’ the boss, are you?”

A familiar feeling crept into Joe’s stomach. This was the main reason why he wanted to leave camp quietly; he hated goodbyes. “Well, Wish….”

Wish leveled those knowledgeable eyes at him, a troubled expression on his bearded face. “I’ll miss you, boy. More’n a man ought to have a right to, seein’ as how we ain’t kin and all.” He paused a moment, then asked, “Talk to you a minute, boy?”

Chad took the hint and stepped away, muttering something about borrowing a horse.

Joe turned back to Wishbone, emotion nearly consuming him. He really would miss Wishbone with his strange sayings he still didn’t understand most of the time. Shucks, Joe would even miss his cooking! Joe held out a hand and Wish took it in both of his and shook it vigorously, leaning in close at the same time. “You take care of yourself, boy. If I was you, I’d consider finding yourself a new partner. This one has got trouble written all over him.”

Joe nodded, knowing Wishbone was being completely serious. Joe knew that both Mr. Favor and Wish were keeping eagle eyes on Chad and had even gone as far as to ask about him at a local law office. Joe only knew about this investigation because the fact he overheard the two talking about it one night. He didn’t know what they had found out, but it must not have been too bad, considering that Favor had offered both of them jobs…but perhaps he had figured that to get Joe to come back, he’d have to invite Chad to stay as well. So far, Chad hadn’t gotten into any real trouble, but he enjoyed walking the fine line between life and death, something Joe didn’t admire in a man. The way Chad and Rowdy sometimes went at it was enough to make Joe want to give up the drive, and maybe even Chad, for good. Still, they had been through enough together that he was willing to overlook his cavalier attitude…for now. Even with his close ties with the young man, Joe still felt a doubt nagging at the back of his mind. If there was big trouble, what would he do? Would he stand by Chad, who could seem like a complete stranger at times? Despite Joe’s confident proclamation to Katy and Wishbone, he really didn’t know enough about Chad to feel comfortable about trusting his life to the man.

Wishbone had still not released Joe’s hand, and with a start, Joe realized that he had no idea how long he had been standing there thinking. Wishbone’s voice drew him back. “Any man who handles a gun the way he does has his days numbered. You’re a real nice boy. I honest-to-goodness don’t want any trouble to find you. The last thing I need is to hear about the two of you gettin’ shot up over some argument on who’s dealin’ from the bottom of a deck.”

Joe felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, the sure sign that something bad was coming, but he tried to ignore it. He pulled his hand away. “Been takin’ care of myself for a long time, Wish. I reckon I can carry on for a bit longer without gettin’ myself killed.”

“Where you gonna go, boy? You are goin’, I can tell.”

Joe shrugged his large shoulders, feeling a bit defensive. “I feel the need to see some country, Wish. Can’t see much of it if I’m slowed down by a bunch of beeves.”

“You ain’t gonna see much but six feet of it for the rest of eternity if you’re not careful.”

“Honest, Wish, I will try. I just ain’t cut out to be a cowboy forever. I’ve been cooped up for one reason or another for a long time. I just want to be free for while to do what I want and to go where I want.” He shrugged again. “And if it’s with Chad, then so be it. If we stick by each other, we’ll be alright.”

Wishbone rocked back on his heels, his chin in the air, a common habit that meant a lecture was coming. Joe braced himself but Wish merely said, “Well, I can see there’s not talking you out of it. Goodbye, son. Hope to see you again sometime.” Joe watched the man shuffle back to his wagon, and suddenly, he looked so old. Joe almost lost his resolve. He took a tiny step forward, and the small movement caught Wish’s attention, causing his thin shoulders to perk up a touch. But at the same moment, Chad called Joe’s name, and Joe turned away, not noticing when Wishbone’s shoulders slumped once more. As they rode out of camp, Wishbone shook his head in sadness and disappointment. He knew, deep down, trouble was coming for those two young men, and though he had tried, he could do nothing to stop it. He could only wish that when the showdown occurred that these two really would stand by each other. And somehow, he knew they would.

*****

Chad leaned sat in a saloon across from the blacksmith shop. Too early in the day to find a proper poker game, he was waiting for his pard. Joe was getting Buck his first pair of shoes and had refused to leave his equine friend during such a new and stressful procedure.

The thought of horses reminded Chad of his own need for a good mount. There had to be a good place to buy a horse around here somewhere, so Chad asked the owner of the establishment, an attractive woman with red hair. She directed him to the cattle yards at the edge of town, for there was bound to be someone selling horses down there.

Chad felt restless, so he decided to investigate the information. He exited the saloon and crossed the street to the smithy. Joe came out to meet him. It was strange how the big man could somehow sense Chad’s whereabouts at all times, like he could hear him from a mile off or something.

Joe leaned against a post, his thumbs tucked into his gun belt. Strange how somebody who had just acquired a sidearm could look so natural with one, like he had been using one for a long time. That big tan hat that Chad had chosen for his friend was tipped back on the back of Joe’s head, giving him a look of relaxed ease. However, Chad knew better. Joe was always wound tight even if he didn’t look like it, ready to spring into action at any moment. This was perhaps a reason why they got along so well; Chad was exactly the same way.

Joe nodded at Chad and spat out a piece of straw that he had been chewing on. “Where you off to, Chad?”

Chad pointed ahead of himself. “Thought I might go down to the yards and see about getting a horse. I don’t suppose you would want to get some exercise and mosey down there with me.”

“Why not? Buck could use an easy walk to get used to them shoes. Hold on, I’ll grab him.” The muscular man eased back into the dark interior of the shop, disappearing from sight. Chad tapped his fingers against the butt of his pistol; he hated waiting.

Joe came around from behind the smithy, leading Buck, who was walking rather strangely. Chad laughed and patted the buckskin on the shoulder. “Poor fella! Not the idea of a good time, huh?”

Joe gave a small half-smile, fingering the horse’s new bridle, his eyes studying the saddle on the horse’s back. “Got this tack from the blacksmith. Looks like ol’ Buck and I have had a lot of new stuff to get used to.”

Chad looked his friend over, admiring the way his cowboy duds fit him. “It’s a good change, for sure. Suits you fine.”

His pard gave him a grateful if not weary smile. Chad knew how hard these past couple of months had been on the ex-Comanche. It was by no means easy for anyone to learn a new way of life, but Joe had done a real decent job at it. During some of the cooler hours of the day, Chad had shown Joe some finer points of drawing a pistol and how to shoot tin cans off a fence. Though he wasn’t the fastest Chad had seen, Joe had real accuracy that was not to be scoffed at. During some of the rockier moments in the training sessions, Joe had thrown his knife in frustration. The knife would perfectly puncture the can and would even carry it on another several yards. It was this skilled knife-throwing that undoubtedly aided in his accuracy with a six gun. Chad could only imagine what Joe’s potential talent with a rifle could be.

As they strolled down the main street, Chad couldn’t help but wonder what they were going to do with themselves once he did get a horse. They really didn’t have a lot of money between the two of them, so they would obviously need to something soon. Chad knew that Joe wouldn’t cotton to doing anything beyond the law; Chad didn’t exactly want to either, but if an opportunity arose that was too tempting….

They reached the cattle yards in no time. A general din of bawling cattle hung over the place. However, one sound cut through, one that Chad loved to hear: excited voices. It soon became apparent what the noise was about. Some cowboys were breaking some broncs in a nearby corral, and as a cowboy was carried in erratic circles around the pen, the man’s friends would cheer raucously. Chad put a hand on Joe’s arm, stopping him. “I’ve got a plan, pard. How’re your bronc-bustin’ skills? No, never mind, I know how they are…just fine…..”

Joe looked at him skeptically. “I don’t like the sound of this, Chad. What are…”

“Shh, pal, just follow me.”

The two men walked over and leaned against the boards with the other cowboys. The horse they were trying to wear down was a high-spirited black that looked mean enough to stomp a man once he was down. He tried to do just that, but the fallen man was quickly dragged from danger’s way by his pards. The man rose, cursing, slapping dust from his chaps. One of the rescuers clapped the man on the shoulder. “Shucks, Jeb, I thought for sure you had him that time.”

Jeb, as he was called, nodded angrily. “That horse is a man killer! But I’m startin’ to tire him out.”

They were interrupted by boisterous laughter. The group of cowboys all turned to behold Chad and Joe. Jeb was instantly furious, at least more than before. “What’s so funny?” he demanded harshly.

“Chad…,” Joe warned.

Chad ignored him. “You are, friend. I mean, the way you went flying off that cayuse like you had wings. Ha, ha!”

Chad,” Joe whispered forcibly, but the damage was already done. Jeb didn’t look like a kidding type, and if he had been packing iron, Joe was sure the cowboy would have gone for it by now. Jeb looked ready to explode and probably would have in a flurry of fists if they had not been interrupted by another, older cowboy. He placed a hand on Jeb’s chest while at the same time pointing a finger at Chad. “You watch it, kid. Jeb here don’t take too kindly to that kind of talk. So unless you think you can do any better, you’d better move on.”

Chad smiled, that cunning fox-face sending alarm through Joe’s mind. “Please, just walk away, please, please, ple…”

“Oh, I know I can’t do any better.” Joe heaved a small sigh of relief, but was it was cut short when Chad hit Joe on his stomach gently with the back of his hand. “But my pard Joe here sure can.”

Joe’s backbone snapped straight. All eyes were fixed on him, except for his own, of course, for his were silently pleading with Chad. Once again, Chad carefully avoided his friend’s eyes.

“Is that right,” the older cowboy said. “We’ll just have to see about that.”

“Sure, but what do say to making it worth my friend’s time? Double or nothing?”

Joe wished a hole would open up beneath him and pull him under. Chad was out of control.

“Those seem like fair enough odds. What do you say, Jeb? Want to see if this big mouth’s words have anything behind them?”

Jeb grunted. “I’ll throw in a week’s worth to see this dude fall on his face, even if he’s not the one that’s ridin’.”

Chad grinned mockingly. “You just as well hand it over now! Go show ‘em, Joe.”

Joe grabbed Chad by his collar, dragging him to the side. “Excuse us, gents.”

“Easy on the shirt, Joe,” Chad said, more concerned with his clothes than Joe’s murderous countenance.

“You been chewing loco weed, Chad?” His voice was a dangerous whisper. “You ain’t even seen me ride a bronc before!”

Chad patted Joe on the chest. “I have all the confidence in the world in you, pard. After all, you were raised with the Comanche, the best horse-handlers in the West.”

Joe knocked Chad’s hand away. “Horse-handlers, maybe, but we don’t break our horses. We gentle them easy-like.”

Chad looked at him, a paleness creeping over his tan face. “You’re saying….”

“Chad, I ain’t never busted a bronc in my life.”

Joe was given a full view of Chad’s teeth in his gaping mouth. Joe poked him under his chin, closing the mouth with a snap. “Don’t worry, I’ll pull your fat out of the fire…but you’re gonna owe me. Again.”

Joe unbuckled his gun belt and shoved it into Chad’s belly. He pulled his knife out as well and placed it carefully into Chad’s hand, who had barely recovered from Joe’s less-than gentle handing-over of his gun.

“Lead the way, gents,” Joe said with a little confidence. He did know horses very well; he just had never done the rough-and-tumble method of winning their trust. He honestly didn’t believe in this technique, but poor Chad would get himself beaten to a pulp if Joe didn’t do something. He really didn’t fancy rescuing the boy from a full-on brawl, so this way would just have to do.

The black looked vicious and bad tempered. He snorted and pawed the ground when Joe and the others mounted the fence. When some made to get down with him, Joe stopped them. “Thanks, friends, but I’ll take it from here,” Joe said. The men shrugged and stayed where they were.

Joe eased himself to the ground, trying to move as slowly and carefully as possible. The black’s head went high, his nostrils flared, but stood still. Holding his hands out, Joe approached the horse one step at a time. He was about two yards away when suddenly the gelding charged him, teeth bared.

*****

Chad had to choke down an exclamation of fear as the animal charged. The horse might have been breathing fire, he was so terrifying. However, Joe stood stock still, like he was completely unaware that a giant body was hurtling toward him. He merely held out his hands, palms out.

Everyone on the fence tensed, bad feelings momentarily forgotten as they watched in anticipation. It turned out that none of them had anything to worry about, for at the last moment possible the horse slid to a stop inches from Joe’s hand. The black tossed his head fiercely but made no other move toward Joe.

From his position on the fence, Chad couldn’t make out what was being said, but Joe was definitely talking to the sweaty animal. The horse calmed a bit, enough to where he was standing still. Joe gradually moved his hand toward the horse’s face, and Chad’s breath hitched when Joe’s fingers made contact with the wet hide. He was still too close to the horse’s mouth which housed huge teeth that could take a man’s finger as easily as a sharp knife.

Joe continued to speak softly, all the while rubbing a little, his hand gradually working his way down the horse’s neck. Eventually one hand was on the horse’s head and the other was on his shoulder, touching lightly and caressing. The horse was standing as still as a statue, every muscle tense and ready to spring into action, but he continued to allow Joe to touch him. Joe’s hand crept toward the saddle, touching a little as he went to let the horse know where he was going. In one quick movement, his strong hand yanked on the girth, tugging the buckle loose, allowing the cinch to fall. A low murmur rippled through the crowd, and Chad noticed that more men had gathered.

The horse had snorted at Joe’s last action and stepped a bit away from Joe, but Joe just followed. He kept one hand on the horse’s neck while pulling the saddle completely off the horse’s back. The horse was too jumpy for this and leapt away from Joe, eyes rolling in fear, as the saddle fell to the ground. Joe allowed the horse to nervously dance around the pen for a moment before he started again.

Jeb leaned close to Chad. “What’s he doin’? He can’t bust no bronc without a saddle.”

Chad smiled, his confidence building again. “You just wait and see.”

Joe was repeating the actions of before, talking quietly and slowly bending to pick up the trailing lead rope. The horse had calmed considerably since the saddle had been removed and allowed Joe to advance toward him.

A few minutes felt like a heartbeat and an eternity at the same time as Joe continued to calm and gentle the horse until he had his large arm draped over the horse’s back. The black stood tensely still again. However, he did not seem angry, but cautious. Joe rubbed all over the horse’s back, leaning and pushing, becoming a little more heavy-handed. Chad could see a small smile begin to form on Joe’s face, and Chad’s tensed in anticipation. A collective intake of breath was heard along the fence as Joe crouched a touch. Was he going to jump astride now? He did jump a little, letting his body fall against the black, but he made no attempt to swing his leg over. The animal shied away, his teeth coming back to nip Joe, and then jerking away as if expecting a blow to fall. Joe did nothing of the kind. He merely kept a strong hold on the lead rope and leaned against the animal’s side again. The horse pivoted around Joe who continued to press he weight against the animal’s side.

When he did jump completely onto the horse’s back, neither the horse nor the observers were prepared. The crowd gasped as the horse tensed, his back arching a bit, but he did not make a move to buck. Joe sat loosely, his legs dangling a length past the black’s lean sides. The horse uneasily stomped his feet and took a few tentative steps, as if trying to balance the unfamiliar weight on its back. He hesitantly jumped a little, causing Joe to bounce a bit, but he stayed on by squeezing the horse’s back with his thighs. The horse responded to the pressure by suddenly surging forward, serving to narrowly avoid crashing into the wooden fence. They moved as one around the pen in irregular patterns, the horse leaping and rearing high before landing lightly on all four feet. Joe stayed in his seat, his powerful legs keeping him there along with a strong grip on the horse’s ebony mane. A long period of time stretched by while the horse raced about, testing his rider. Finally, he stopped abruptly, standing immobile in the center of the corral, head erect and alert. Joe patted the sweaty neck fondly. Pulling on the rope lightly, he turned the horse’s head while nudging it a bit with one knee. The horse responded well by turning and walking. The two circled the perimeter of the corral slowly, the proud black prancing, its head tossing in spirit rather than anger.

The breathtaking moment was broken when Jeb swore loudly, tossing his hat to the ground. The black jerked away in fear but calmed quickly by a hand on the neck. His ears twitched about nervously but would turn backward to hear Joe’s reassuring voice. “Easy, boy, don’t pay no mind to him.”

“How!? How did he do that?” Jeb was enraged again, perhaps even more so than before.

Chad smirked. “Ah, my friend. I forgot to mention that my friend here is an adopted member of the proud Comanche Nation.”

Jeb exploded. “That’s…not sportin’! How was anybody supposed to stand a chance against a red devil?”

The old cowboy intervened again. “Just pay the man, Jeb. He won fair and square.”

“We’ll see how well that demon’s broke in,” Jeb said hotly and leapt down into corral, murder in his eyes.

Chad watched in a panic as the cowboy charged toward Joe and the horse, his heart rising in his throat as the animal shrieked in terror. Jeb swung his arms and yelled, startling the horse. The black blindly reared up and to the side, fully colliding with the corral wall. He fell on his back, splintering the rails and crushing Joe underneath.

*****

“JOE!” Chad screamed, jumping into the corral. The horse had gotten to his feet and was dashing around madly, and Chad was half knocked down as he went racing by. Other cowboys tried to get into the corral to help, but the horse had gone crazy and was charging them, teeth snapping.

Chad raced to where his friend had fallen, calling his name. “JOE! Speak to me!” Chad dove toward Joe’s prone body, a prayer on his lips. He nearly wretched at the sight of Joe’s broken body. “This is all my fault, all my fault,” he choked. “Oh Joe,” he howled brokenly. Behind him he could hear the thrashing of hooves and men shouting. A hand gripped his shoulder, but he shook it away in a violent gesture. “Get off!”

“Boy, that horse has gone loco! We gotta get outta here, and fast!”

“No! I won’t leave Joe!”

The man pulled at Chad more desperately.

“LEAVE ME!” Chad was beyond hysteria as he pulled his gun and jammed it in the cowboy’s side. The man, the older cowboy from earlier, raised his hands pleadingly.

“Come on, kid, you don’t wanna do that.” He looked as though he would argue more with Chad, but instead turned and jumped through the rails just as the black came charging toward them. The horse followed the old cowboy, kicking the fence right where he had been half a second before.

Chad once again fell to his knees beside Joe’s body, his shoulders shaking in bottled-up grief. An outcry was heard from the onlookers, but he ignored them. His friend’s shattered body was all that mattered now. Chad’s mind went back to one his first encounters with Joe. The man had held him in the creek, keeping his head above the water as the sun fever was pulled from Chad’s body. Now they were in a reverse role. Chad was the one protecting Joe from…what? Chad didn’t do any protecting, only harm. It was his doing that Joe was dead. He felt hot breath on his neck….With a mighty roar of grief, Chad whirled, standing in the same motion. Directly behind him stood the black horse, its ears pricked forward and breaths coming in mighty snorts. “You…,” Chad growled. He held the gun out, intent to kill that savage beast. The horse stood completely still, his black eyes swallowing Chad in their depths. He could not kill the animal, for this was not the horse’s doing. He lowered the gun sadly. The horse seemed to understand, for he stepped forward and snuffled at Joe’s hair. Chad swiped a dirty sleeve over his face, wiping away tears. He leaned against the horse’s side, refusing to look at his downed friend. How could he go on now? His knees were shaking as most of his weight pressed against the horse’s ribs.

A few brave men approached the man and horse, nearly taking to the fence again when the horse’s head came up to snort threateningly. Chad patted the horse’s flank absently, calming it. The older cowboy reached them first, his face grim and flushed. “I sent for the doctor, boy. He’ll be here as fast as he can.”

Chad didn’t hear him over blood rushing in his ears. “Joe, Joe, Joe! I’m so sorry Joe….” The horse moved suddenly, nearly knocking Chad over, snapping him out of his reverie. Chad looked blearily at the animal, wondering what could have set him off. It was then that he caught a flash of movement in the corner of his eye, coming from the same direction as the horse had turned. Rage like he had never before experience bubbled up in his chest. “YOU STOP RIGHT THERE!” Chad’s voice rose to a shriek.

Everyone, even the men huddled around Joe’s body, jerked in shock to see what the noise was. They all watched in horror as the young man they had just met walked with gun extended toward Jeb. The cowboy appeared to have been injured, for he was hunched and holding his abdomen. However, when Chad screamed, he straightened abruptly.

Red was settling into Chad’s vision. “Go for your gun, mister,” he said in a dead-calm voice, his legs spreading apart to adopt a gunfighter’s stance.

“I ain’t got one, mister,” Jeb gasped, his face pale and sweaty.

“THEN GET ONE!” Chad was beginning to lose touch with all rationality. He swore violently, calling all manner curses upon Jeb’s head. “You killed my best friend just the same as if you shot him in the back. Now, you get yourself a gun,” he whispered, “and then I’m gonna kill you.”

Jeb fully faced Chad, his injury forgotten. “Just who do you think you are? You talk awful big, dude. That boy shouldn’t have trusted that devil horse. Once a killer, always a killer.”

“That horse is no killer,” Chad growled. “But you are. And so am I. Get a gun now, or I will shoot you were you stand!”

A pain-filled groan distracted both men for a moment. What was that? It almost sounded like…

Chad’s teeth snapped together as a body crashed into his, pounding him to the ground. At the distraction, Jeb had rushed across the space between them and collided with Chad. Despite his death grip, Chad’s gun went flying. Jeb’s hands were groping at Chad’s neck, but Chad sent a fist right into the other man’s face. Jeb rolled away from Chad, his nose bleeding. Both got to their feet, never taking eyes off the other. Chad’s face was fixed in a deadly smile. “Fine. I like it better this way.”

Jeb spat on the ground. “Just try it, mister. There ain’t been nobody yet who could beat me.” The cowboy probably had at least a good three inches and forty pounds on Chad, but that mattered not. What mattered was Joe’s body nearby, and while Jeb had not directly killed Chad’s only friend, he had set the course. If pounding Jeb into the ground was the way to vengeance, so be it. He would welcome the change in plan if only because he could draw it out longer.

Jeb feinted at Chad’s ribs, following with a quick jab to Chad’s chin, sending him staggering back a step. Chad responded with a quick one-two to Jeb’s already bleeding nose. The cowboys shouted in encouragement or anger, but Chad only heard his own internal mantra: “You killed my only friend. Now I’m going to kill you.”

The blows followed quickly in succession. To the onlookers, the sight was truly amazing. Jeb was the more experienced of the two, using moves that were common in brawls and bare-knuckle boxing, but Chad had lightning reflexes, and what he didn’t have in experience and skill, he made up for it by dodging punches. He also had a deadly calm about him while Jeb was becoming more enraged as his hits did nothing to stop the smaller man. Both were bleeding and bruised with only Jeb was showing effects of the fight. Chad had found his weak spot, an area just above the man’s belt buckle, and whenever possible, Chad sunk a fist there.

Jeb was slowing down and knew it. In a quick and unconventional move, he grabbed Chad’s hand as it shot by and yanked on the outstretched arm, effectively turning Chad so that his back was to his opponent. Jeb wrapped his arms around Chad’s in a bear hug, squeezing tight. Chad gasped as he felt his ribs creak. He thrashed a bit but could not break Jeb’s grip. He rested a moment, trying to get a breath. Jeb’s voice sounded in his ear, sounding like the sultry voice of the devil. “Like I said, there ain’t nobody who could beat me.”

Chad gritted his teeth. “Joe did. Rode that bronc without…breaking…a…sweat….” It was getting harder and harder to get a proper lungful of air.

Jeb snickered. “Oh, he lost in the long run. I bested him, permanent.”

Chad’s rage reached an all-time high, and a bullet exploding from a gun barrel hardly had the same amount of power as he did. Howling like a wild animal, Chad threw his head back as hard as he could. His skull met Jeb’s face with such force that Chad saw stars. The larger man grunted with the impact, and his arms loosened. It was at this moment when Chad propelled his hips backward, ducking his upper body at the same time. He flipped Jeb over his back, laying the cowboy completely flat in a cloud of dust.

Chad stood crookedly, his arm around his ribs, blood dripping from cuts on his face and hands. His breathing was ragged irregular. He looked at Jeb’s prone form, waiting for him to rise again. He did not. It was over.

Chad staggered in Joe’s direction, coming up short when his legs gave out on him. He fell to his knees in the dirt, head bowed. Vengeance. He had beaten down the man that had ended his friend’s life, despite the bully’s confidence. However, Chad felt no exaltation but rather a sense of emptiness that settled into his soul. Where would he go now? What would he do? He was lost, his compass and steadying fortitude gone.

His bleary eyes looked across the corral. Men were still gathered around his friend’s body, but at Chad’s approach they had all moved back. Now, the older cowboy that had tried to pull Chad out came forward. Serious, knowledgeable eyes looked into Chad’s for a moment. He broke the gaze and slowly knelt next to the fallen cowboy, hat in hand. Chad had tuned out the scene, not feeling or seeing anything. He was vaguely aware of several men running out into the corral, a couple stopping at Jeb’s side and the rest going over to Joe. A few exclamations broke through his haze, one of which penetrated Chad’s heart like a knife: “He’s…dead!” A general scuffle was heard, men running and shouting.

Unexpectedly, Chad felt his arms grabbed. He screamed out, “No, I can’t leave him!” He broke free, surging toward Joe’s body, grasping. More hands pulled at his shoulders to which he responded by swinging his fists, striking flesh. A man cursed and shouted orders, which caused the men grappling with Chad to double their efforts. Howling like a rabid dog, Chad clawed and scratched until somebody decked him hard across the mouth. He was stunned for an instant and the men took the opportunity to pin him face down to the ground. Dirt filled his eyes and mouth, mingling with tears coursing down. “Joe, Joe! It’s all my fault, Joe….”

His arms were wrenched behind him so hard Chad cried out. A coarse rope was cinched tight around his wrists, and when he continued to flail his legs, striking someone with his spurs, somebody took the initiative to restrain those too. Effectively hobbled, Chad lay on his stomach, silent sobs coming from his mouth in great spasms. His subjugators seized him by his collar and the rope that tied his hands, pulling him up. He couldn’t stand on his own, a combination of having his ankles tied together and his own inability to support himself. The men started to drag him away…away from Joe. Chad wildly looked over his shoulder, trying to once last glimpse, but there were too many people around Joe’s body. Grief claimed him completely. Sagging against the arms that held him, he let himself be dragged away, the toes of his boots leaving strange lines in the dirt.

The men took him into a building and threw him down. Chad fell limply, not caring, but was surprised just the same when he fell onto something soft. A door closed, and then another banged shut, throwing the room into relative darkness. Chad lay alone, face down on the yielding surface, letting the tears flow. He hated himself with all his heart. He had been uncaring of Joe’s safety, only thinking of his own financial gain. Now, because of his own greedy desires, Joe was dead. Dead…dead…dead…. Joe’s gentle, kind face rose in front of his eyes, though he had them squeezed tightly shut. Joe had been hurt so many times, but still he had trusted Chad…who let had him down just the same. Chad moaned both audibly and in spirit. “What have I done?”

*****

The marshal peered into the dimly lit cell. The young stranger was lying as the drovers had dumped him: facedown, hands bound behind him. Well, he could lie there for a while yet, just as long it took the law to settle things outside. “Stay with him,” he ordered his deputy. “If he starts going crazy again…”

“Well, I reckon I’ll just tap him over the head with this here scattergun,” the scruffy lawman drawled. “Don’t you worry about a thing, Marshal.”

The tall marshal exited the building, nearly having to duck his head in the doorway. The deputy immediately put his feet up on the desk, the shotgun cradled in his arms. No sense wasting time just sitting when he could waste time sitting andnapping.

A pleasant dream of a girl with corn silk hair and blue eyes was abruptly interrupted when a loud crash sounded in the law office. “What in tarnation!” He nearly tipped his chair over when he tangled his large spurs together in an attempt to get his feet to the floor. Finally standing, he swung he barrel of the shotgun, looking for the intruder, and knocked over a near-empty pitcher of water. Muttering angrily, he kicked the metal pitcher away from his foot. “That fool Co-manch, more’n likely playin’ tricks on me!”

His suspicions were not ill-conceived; a certain half-breed resident of the town was prone to tricking the deputy. However, in this case, the man was nowhere near. The noise had been produced by another source, one that was now moaning. The deputy put down the shotgun on his desk, rubbing his face, trying to conceal his embarrassment. Lucky for him, the sole witness of his near-fall had just fallen himself and was too busy studying the floor under his face.

The deputy scuffled over to the cell bars, alarmed. “Boy, did you take a spill?” He received no response, but the boy did turn over slightly so the weight of his face was no longer on his nose. The deputy squatted down to be at a closer level to the prisoner. “Sorry we got you trussed up like that. Marshal said to leave you like that, though, since you weren’t so right in the head earlier.”

“Don’t reckon I’ll ever be right in the head again.” His voice was so low the deputy thought he might have misheard him, but one look at the boy’s face told him enough. Though many mistook the deputy to be slow in the head because of his backwoods vernacular and mannerisms, he had a depth of feelings and was extremely perceptive on the moods of others. Using these gifts, he wisely remained silent.

He stood when he heard steps on the boards outside. It was a local townsman, Rob. “Marshal wants you over at Doc’s. Says to hurry over. I’ll keep watch here.”

“Obliged to you, Rob.” He looked down at the boy on the floor. “Maybe you could help that poor fella up onto the cot, if he has a mind to be up there.”

He strode down Front Street toward Doc’s office, running into the town blacksmith on the way. “Howdy there, Co-manch. On my way to Doc’s.”

The man’s Comanche heritage had earned him the nickname, though he lived as a white man. “I suppose I’ll tag along, see if I can be of some help.”

The two men walked companionably to the doctor’s office, turning into the alley to find the marshal waiting with a wagon. Peering over the edge of the buckboard, the deputy took into a gruesome sight: two bodies, both young and able looking. His gawking was interrupted by the marshal. “Help me get him up to the office. Be careful with him; he’s still alive.”

Sure enough, the man was still breathing, if just barely. The deputy and the blacksmith gathered the man in the arms. He was a dead weight and it took most of their strength just to lift him out of the wagon bed. Doc was waiting at the top of the stairs, wishing for the umpteenth time that his office was on the first floor. “Hurry up!” he commanded gruffly. The two staggered up the steps, panting. The marshal cast a blanket over the remaining body, a large man with dark hair. “No hurry for this one,” he murmured to no one in particular.

He followed the procession up the stairs. The two young men had laid out the body of the injured man on Doc’s table. Doc was already removing the man’s clothes with the assistance of the blacksmith. The marshal watched silently, his deputy beside him. The squinty-eyed man removed his ten-gallon hat to wipe his face with a large bandanna. “What happened, Matthew? These two fella’s get hit by a train?”

The marshal shook his head gravely. “No, Festus, one had a horse fall on him, at least what the boys are saying down at the corral. The other was beaten in a fight.”

Festus shook his head. “Not a good way to go, havin’ some poor horse roll over you. You know, I had this cousin once…”

The blacksmith turned toward the marshal, a pair of pants in his hands. He held them out. “Look familiar, Matt?”

Matt accepted the trousers, noting there was nothing especially significant about them…but the beaded belt caught his eye. “Sure does. Reminds me of a certain bracelet a certain blacksmith likes to wear.”

Doc broke into the conversation. “When you three are finished gabbin’ about the origins of my patient, I’d sure like some help.”

“Sure, Doc, what can we do?” Matt asked.

“Well, this poor boy’s whole left side is pretty well boogered up. Near as I can tell, he’s got broken ribs, a busted arm and collar bone, and I don’t like the looks of that leg either. So, I’m gonna go about settin’ the bones, and I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but he has a body that we’re all probably all jealous about. I just don’t fancy getting my face busted on account of a riled patient. So, if you don’t mind….”

“Right. Festus, come around this side. Quint, you lay across his legs there.” Matt took position at the boy’s muscular torso, Festus holding the good arm against the table. “Go ahead, Doc.”

The boy did have a body that most men would be jealous for and women would swoon over, for he rocked the table and the three men as the doctor set the broken bones and wrapped his ribs. When they were finally finished, he was on the brink of consciousness. “There, there, son,” the Doc said gently. “Take some of this; it’ll make you feel better.” He tipped some laudanum into the boy’s mouth, pleased when it was swallowed. All relaxed when the boy’s impressive muscles went slack and he fell into deep unconsciousness.

Festus wiped his face again. “Dad-burn it, Doc, why didn’t you give that stuff to him before? I was liable to bust a gut tryin’ to hold this bear down.”

“He wasn’t awake enough to swallow properly. Then he was. The exercise was good for you, Festus,” he ended, smiling.

“You want us to put him on the bed, Doc?”

“Yes, Quint. Try and make him comfortable. Matt, let’s go take a look at the one downstairs.”

“Was just going to ask you that, Doc,” the tall marshal said, opening the door. A small crowd had gathered below, mostly cowboys that were at the scene. They all removed their hats when Doc lifted the blanket after climbing into the bed. “No head injuries, near as I can tell….”

A rancher stepped forward. “Marshal, I saw the whole thing. Jeb just went crazy and ran at the horse the other one riding. It was on account of him that bronc fell into the fence and crushed that boy you got upstairs. The smaller one got after Jeb when that happened.” The rancher shook his head. “It sure was somethin’ else, Matt. That boy was livin’ rage. Had the face of death, he did. Anyway, don’t see as to why Jeb’s dead. The boy did nothing but hit him a few times, then throw him on the ground. One of the boys noticed he was dead not too long after that.”

Doc straightened up. “Where did he hit him? In the head?”

The rancher nodded. “Yeah, some, but it seemed that Jeb’s gut was hurting him. He folded up when the boy hit him there.”

Doc unbuttoned Jeb’s shirt, revealing massive bruising on his abdomen. Matt whistled softly. “That boy must have a fist of iron! Look at that….”

“No, look at that,” Doc pointed. “No man’s fist has ever caused a mark like that.” The distinct outline of a hoof print was barely seen on the purple flesh, only visible because of some broken skin. “Near as I can tell, Jeb must’ve been kicked by that bronc right before the fight. He was probably already hemorrhaging before the boy got to him. Wouldn’t have been much I could have done for him, even without the fighting.”

Matt nodded, satisfied, and Doc covered the man’s face once again. “Thanks, Doc. Think maybe you can go look at that boy in the jail? He was pretty well shaken up.”

“Sure, Matt. Come along, Festus,” he called. The deputy’s head popped through the office doorway. “I’ll need a lawman to open the cell for me.”

“Comin’, Doc, no need to yell at me.”

Matt watched the two unlikely friends walk away on the boardwalk, Festus spelling out some outlandish tale and Doc contradicting every word of it. He smiled a bit, glad to find something amusing in all the chaos. He turned back to the rancher. “Jeb was one of your hands, Hank. You want to press charges for assault?”

Hank shook his head slowly. “No, Marshal. Not to speak ill of the dead, but Jeb was asking for it. He goaded that boy into fighting him and fought dirty, and what he did to the other…well, I sure hope he makes it.” He stopped for a moment, pursing his lips. “You tell either of them if they need a job after this is all over, they can look me up.”

Matt nodded, admiring the man’s attitude. “Will do, Hank. Thanks for all your help. Be seeing you.”

Matt wearily walked back to his office, hoping for some peace and quiet. A commotion emerged from the small building, eliciting a groan from the weary lawman. “What now?” he groused.

Stepping inside, he was greeted by a sight that may have made him laugh under different circumstances. The young man he had locked in here earlier was sitting on the floor, his back in the corner of the cell. His still-bound legs were extended in a kicking position. Festus and Rob were standing at a safe distance, arms held out. “Now, boy,” Festus was saying, “Doc here just wants to check you out. I’m just gonna cut them ropes off of you.”

The man was eyeing the knife in Festus’ hand, suspicion on his youthful features. Matt strode forward, saying, “Festus, Rob, what are you doing? Come out of there!”

“Well, shucks, Matthew. I just wanted to turn him loose, is all.”

“So you go at him with a knife?” Matt rubbed his face. “You and Rob go on over to the Long Branch and get yourself a beer. I’ll help Doc.”

Festus and Rob walked out, the deputy muttering under the noise of his spurs. Matt shook his head, smiling at Doc, who returned it. The two friends entered the cell, the doctor seating himself on the stool and Matt crouching next to young man, who looked at him distrustfully. He looked terrible; he was completely filthy, his face was streaked with sweat and blood and with what Matt suspected to be tear-tracks. “Well, son, how ‘bout letting Doc here look you over?”

The young man just hunched his shoulders, arms twisting against the ropes. Matt glanced over at Doc; the man just shrugged and moved in. The boy flinched his face away when Doc tried to wipe it with a wet cloth, but the wall prevented him from going too far. Doc finished cleaning up the boy’s face without too much fuss and continued his examination by poking at the boy’s ribs, gathering no response. He shrugged at Matt, saying, “Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him that I can fix. I best be gettin’ back over to that other fella.”

The old man left, the door closing softly behind him. Matt stood, pulling out his folding knife. Keeping the blade closed, he asked, “Want me to cut you loose? Or are you going to be all temperamental again?”

The boy ignored him, so Matt simply sliced through the ropes around the boy’s ankles. His legs fell apart limply. Matt grabbed the boy’s arm, pulling him up, and then dumping him on the cot when the young man offered no assistance. Matt crossed his arms crossly. “I sure don’t know what your problem is. You act like somebody kicked your dog.”

The young man continued to pretend that Matt didn’t exist, so the marshal pulled him forward and cut the ropes around the boy’s wrists. His arms fell to his sides, his hands purple and wrists raw.

Matt turned to leave the cell when a force struck him from behind. Lights flickered in his vision as he toppled forward, falling into the bars. He turned as he slid to the floor, blurry eyes struggling to stay open. He saw the once despondent man standing over him with the stool raised. “What…are you doing?” the marshal slurred.

The man grabbed Matt’s gun from its holster, spinning the cylinder to check if it was loaded. “Sorry, marshal, no hard feelin’s. Just gotta job to finish.”

Realization struck Matt like a lightning bolt. “Wait,” he rasped, trying to grab the boy’s leg as he pushed past, but he did not stop. He had his mind set on killing a man who was already dead.

*****

It took Chad all of two minutes to spot the doctor’s shingle. He ran down the street, colliding with the pretty lady saloon owner when she stepped out of a shop. “Hey!” she yelled. He barely managed to catch her before she fell.

Ever the gentleman, he nodded at her. “Excuse me, ma’am.”

A footstep sounded on the boards behind him. “Miss Kitty, what… Hey! You! Stop there!”

Just those few words told Chad who was back there: that fool deputy. Not even bothering to look at the man, he charged toward the stairs to the doctor’s office. He flew up the steps, taking a couple at a time. He burst through the door, gun drawn. The doctor and a man he didn’t recognize were standing next to a low bed in the corner. Both looked up in shock at his arrival, but the younger, dark-haired one was the first to speak. “Who are you?”

The doctor murmured out of the corner of his mouth. “He’s the one from the jail.” He spoke to Chad. “Boy, what are you doing? Put that gun away.”

Chad pointed the weapon in their direction. “Just step aside. Over there.” They both complied, but the young one looked ready to spring into action. Chad stepped forward, pulling back the hammer, trying to detach himself from what he was about to do. He knew he would more than likely hang after the deed, but he didn’t care. He had thought long and hard, and though he knew nothing could bring Joe back, ridding the world of one less killer would be a way to keep the world’s balance. However, Chad was no murderer. Could he really play the part of an executioner?

His mind was forced to make a decision when he heard the deputy start to come up the steps. He darted across the room, finger tightening on the trigger, just as the doctor said, “No, don’t!”

Chad looked into the face of the man who killed his friend…and all the blood left his head. That wasn’t…. For the first time in his life, Chad fainted, falling to the floor bonelessly, the gun thudding on the wood beside him.

*****

He woke up to find himself back in the cell, only this time he was not bound. Groaning, he sat up, holding his head. Falling on a floor hurt, but it was his brain that hurt the most, what with the unbelievable shock he had just experienced. He heard a noise in the outer office. It was the marshal, who had stepped up to the bars and was staring at him. The man had a bandage around his head from where Chad had hit him. Chad pointed at it. “Sorry about that….” He trailed off, confused. “It’s just that…I heard somebody say, ‘he’s dead.’ I just had to…I just wanted to….”

The marshal held up a hand. “Son, I know what you wanted to do, and I’m sorry we didn’t tell you that your friend was still alive. We just thought you knew.”

“I understand, sir.” Chad swallowed uncomfortably. “Did I kill that bronc buster? He’s dead?”

“I’m afraid so,” the lawman answered. Chad felt an imaginary noose tighten around his neck until the other man continued, saying, “But apparently it wasn’t you who killed him, Well, not technically. He was kicked by that horse in the stomach, caused him to bleed inside. Your little fracas just sped it along a little.”

Chad felt relief spread over him. “Does that mean….”

“Yes, you’re in the clear for that. But you did assault an officer of the law, and for that…”

Chad shot to his feet, his hands grabbing the bars. “Please, sir, I am so sorry for what I done. You have to understand, I was just trying to get even for my friend….” He hung his head. “Looking back, I don’t think that I would have been able to do it. Not really. I wanted to, but it’s not in me. I know that now.”

The marshal observed him in silence for a moment before saying, “I believe that, son. However, you stirred up quite the nest of hornets in my town. I like to keep things quiet and peaceable.”

“Right,” Chad nodded. “If you let me out, I’ll leave just as soon as I can get a horse.”

“What about your friend? Are you just going to leave him? It’ll be some time before he can recover.”

Chad looked up, earnestness in his eyes. He knew what he had to do. “Yessir, I’ll do just that. Joe has put up with me for too long. It’s my fault he’s hurt…and I can hardly live with myself for what happened.” He stalked toward the small window in the back of the cell. “The worst day of that boy’s life was the day he met me.” He buried his face in his hands. “I’m trouble, bad news. A man like me can’t have friends. I should know that by now…. Who am I kidding? I’ve known it all along. Just tricked myself into believing it.” He turned back to the marshal. “I’ll leave tonight if you’ll let me. You’ll never see me again.”

The marshal nodded. “Alright, if that’s the way you want it. Your things are all here; the hotel manager brought them over.” He opened the cell door. It wasn’t even locked. “Just sort out what’s yours and I’ll send the rest over to Doc’s.” He brought out some things from behind his desk. “One of the men down at the corrals brought up these.” It was Joe’s gun belt, knife, and hat, as well as Chad’s hat and gun. He looked inside the hat. “Chad Cooper?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Chad stepped out of the cell and picked out his saddle bag and bed roll. He stuffed his gun back into his holster and put the Stetson on his head after dusting it off.

“I think that’s everything,” said Chad, nearly losing his resolve when his hand brushed against Joe’s hat, the one that Chad had chosen for him. The marshal stacked up what was left in a neat pile. He started to pick it up but Chad stopped him. “Thanks, I’ll…take it.”

The marshal looked deep into Chad’s eyes, and Chad felt waves of compassion rolling off the man. They kept looking at each other until the marshal finally relinquished his hold on the items into Chad’s hands. “Alright, but be careful. Doc didn’t exactly like the way you made your entrance before. I’d try knocking first if I were you.”

Chad nodded. Moments later he was doing just that. The doctor opened the door, his face guarded and a pistol in his hand. “Whoa, I ain’t drawing on you,” Chad said hastily. “I’m just bringing by my friend’s things.” The doctor stared at him a moment, but then stepped aside, allowing Chad admittance. He set the items on a chair just inside and looked around. The doctor was the only one in the room besides Joe, so Chad was able to walk unhindered across the wood floor, stopping next to where his friend lay.

The doctor came to his side. “He’s lucky. His ribs barely stood up to the weight of that horse falling on him. But, with a little rest, he’ll be fine.”

He didn’t look fine. Bruises were prominent on the visible portions of his shoulder, but most of his skin was covered by the bandages wrapping his collarbone and the splint on his arm. Lumpy places under the blanket signified a splint was on Joe’s leg as well. Joe coughed a bit, his face looking pained even in unconsciousness. Chad wanted to make it all go away. If he could take the hurt into himself, he would do so, in a heartbeat. He hesitantly reached out a hand and touched Joe’s cheek, a somewhat intimate contact that seemed odd even to himself. But this was a goodbye, one that meant forever. Though part of him wanted exactly the opposite of what he was about to do, the rational part of himself knew that this was right. It was time to think of someone other than himself for a change.

“Goodbye, pard,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

He turned away, nearly bumping into the doctor. The man’s weathered face was grave but caring, and he spoke softly. “You care a lot about him, don’t you? I bet he feels the same about you, too. You really going to just ride off and leave him here?”

Chad sighed. Did he have to explain himself to everyone? This town sure was nosy. “It’s for the best.”

“For you, maybe,” the doctor said gruffly. “At least leave him a note, explaining things.”

Chad rubbed the back of his neck. If it meant getting these people off his back, fine. “Alright. Got some paper and a pencil?”

“Over here, at the desk.”

Some time later, his note was written, though Chad knew that Joe’s reading abilities were still rusty. Chad himself had helped Joe some during some late night lessons with Wishbone back on the trail. Therefore, he tried to keep it simple and wrote in easy-to-read print. Leaving it and Joe’s items in the care of the good doctor, Chad took one last look at the best friend he had ever had. It was for the best, or so he kept telling himself. Joe would be much better off without Chad around to get him into trouble constantly. The door clicked behind him, the sound mimicking that of the gate to his heart.

*****

Chad led Buck down the street to the livery stable. He had almost forgotten about Joe’s horse and knew that the injured man cared a lot about the animal. As a last service to his friend, he would see that the buckskin would get good care while his owner was laid up.

The livery stable was easily found because of the corrals full with horses of all shapes and colors. If only Chad had seen this first. He could have found a horse without Joe getting hurt. Trying not to dwell on the events of the day, Chad led the horse into the open door, looking for the curator. He spied a man on a chair, his feet propped up on a bale of hay, snoring to beat the band. Chad contemplated waking the man, but because the stable was a fair size, he couldn’t imagine just one older man taking care of it all by himself. He decided to look for someone else.

Leaving Buck at the entrance, Chad ventured deeper into the dim interior. There were many stalls, only a few empty. He had nearly reached the back of the long building when a clatter sounded to his right. Reflexes overtook him and he spun while dropping to one knee, his gun in his hand. A figure was standing in one of the stalls, and though it was dark, Chad saw him jerk in alarm. “Who’s there?” Chad asked, easing himself back to both feet.

“Reckon I could ask you the same question.” The voice was deep and gravelly, old and severe.

His guard went down a little, enough for him to step back from the man and put his gun away. “Just looking for somebody to take care of that horse up there.”

“You’re in luck, mister, ‘cause I work here.” The man shuffled out of the stall, again giving Chad the impression that this was an older man. As the man limped forward, something tall and wooden fell down, almost striking Chad. He caught it easily. The light shining in a beam from the door made it possible to see things in the center of the aisle, so when Chad caught the object he recognized it immediately. It was a crutch. Embarrassed for some reason, Chad tipped it back in the man’s direction. “Sorry,” he apologized.

“What for?” the man growled. “I ain’t no cripple. Just a busted leg, that’s all.”

Chad felt ruffled by the man’s gruff attitude, but let it go. He waited for the man to start forward to fall in behind. It was a gunfighter’s habit, one used to keep potential threats in front, but the man remained where he was. Chad suddenly got the impression that the stableman had the same habit and was waiting for Chad to go first. Chad shrugged. What was one old man going to do to him? He wasn’t even wearing a gun. Walking ahead, Chad reached Buck quickly. The horse snorted as he heard the odd thumping stride of the stable keeper, and Chad turned to watch the man approach. The man handled his crutches easily, hopping along with his broken leg extended before him. As the light got better, Chad was surprised to see that the man was actually much younger than he sounded. In fact, he was probably even a little younger than Chad himself. It had been that older-sounding, cynical voice that had given him the wrong impression, Chad figured. The man, or maybe a boy, had smooth, tan skin and was fit and thin, not at all matching that deep voice. Even now, the boy’s suspicious eyes were boring a hole through Chad. “What’re you lookin’ at, cowboy?”

Chad felt his heart leap a touch, something he was not accustomed to experiencing. His gut was rarely wrong, and right now it was telling him that this young man was dangerous. He covered his discomfort by avoiding the question. “Ah, nothing. Take care of my friend’s horse, will you?”

“Sure,” that gravelly voice muttered. “How long?”

Chad fished out a few coins, handing them over. “How long will these keep him?”

The young man leaned on his crutches as he spread the coins over one palm with his thumb. “About a week.”

Chad gave him some more. “Might need to keep him longer.”

“Why?”

Chad didn’t feel like explaining the situation, so kept it brief. “He’s laid up at Doc’s. Might be a spell before he recovers enough to take care of ol’ Buck here.”

The man nodded, putting the coins in his pocket. “As you can see, I have a hard time liftin’ down the saddle, so if you don’t mind….”

“Oh, sure!” Chad did as asked, putting the saddle where the other man directed him. Chad watched the young man finish up putting Buck away. The silence was oppressive, and not one able to stand and do nothing, Chad attempted to make conversation with the moody stableman. “So, what happened?” He gestured to the casted leg.

The man looked at him a touch irritably. “Horse spooked at a rattler. Some fella found me out there and brought me into Dodge half-dead from sun fever.”

“Sounds familiar,” Chad commiserated. When he received a sharp glance, he explained. “I mean, I’ve been in a similar situation.”

The man didn’t answer, apparently uninterested, so Chad bit his tongue. Once Buck was comfortably stowed, the man hobbled out of the stall, holding on to the walls for support. Chad considered handing the man his crutches but thought better of it. The man got the wooden props under his arms but didn’t move. Rather, he just stared at Chad. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Ah, no.”

“Just travelin’ through, are you?”

“Maybe. Why?”

The man shrugged. “No reason. Just that our wonderful marshal here don’t usually let our…” He stopped himself, swallowing. “Your kind stay around here.”

Gleaming leather just over the shoulder of the man, hanging from a peg on the wall caught Chad’s eye. Shifting his weight a little, he was able to make out one of the finest gun fighting rigs he had ever seen, its black leather shining due to recent oiling and frequent care. “Ah…I just so happen to be leaving town as soon as I can get myself set up with a horse and supplies.”

“Looking for a horse, are you?”

Chad nodded.

“Got some for sale out here. Just got a nice fancy one,” the man’s eyes trailed up and down Chad, “that you might favor.”

Chad quirked an eyebrow at the man but followed him outside to the pens. At their approach, a sturdy, medium-sized bay approached the fence, whickering. The man stopped momentarily to pat the horse’s nose, his entire body changing from uptight and guarded to relaxed and gentle. “This one’s mine. Haven’t had him for long, but he’s already spoiled rotten.”

Chad smiled. The man couldn’t be all bad if he cared about his horse so much. “Is he the one who dumped you out on the prairie?”

“Well, can’t give him too hard of a time, can I? He didn’t even wander off after that happened. I might have been able to get out of there on him if I could have stood on my own to get onto him.” The man seemed lost in a memory. “Wasn’t for the man who saved me, I probably would have died out there…still, sure hate to owe a man anything.” There was a distinct air of uneasiness about the man, but he shrugged it off. “Well, over here. These are all for sale, but that one right there is the best in the lot.”

Chad stepped onto the lowest bar of the corral to get a better view. The horses started to mill around, stirred by their approach. The stableman leaned against the fence, pointing. “That…there, that one, with the blaze.”

Chad nearly fell off the fence. It was the black from earlier! “How…uh, hm,” he trailed off.

The man smirked up at him. “Chad Cooper, right? You’re the one whose friend nearly got done in down at the corrals today. He said you’d be comin’ ‘round, lookin’ for a horse.”

“Who?”

“The rancher whose hired man got killed, the one who tried to kill your friend. He brought this black down here, feelin’ real bad. Here, he gave this to me to give to you.” The man extended a folded piece of paper.

Chad accepted it and started to read. “This bill of sale pronounces that C. Cooper is now the legal owner of this horse, one black gelding with white markings. Signed, Hank Murphy. Witnessed by Marshal M. Dillon, Dodge City.”

Chad gaped in shock, not sure how to respond.

“Yeah, he said he felt real bad about what happened and that he felt like you won this horse, fair and square.”

“Won him? We bet in money.”

“He knew you were down there lookin’ to buy a horse. Truth is, this horse is worth twice of any of the others you see around here. Nobody had much luck gentling him, though, until now.”

“But Joe was the one who rode him,” Chad said.

“Dadgum, mister, somebody gives you a horse, don’t argue him out of it.”

Chad smiled. “I guess you’re right.” He grabbed a lariat hanging on a post and hopped the fence. The horses circled around, but Chad had gotten a lot of practice during the Favor drive. After only a couple tries, Chad had him roped. Surprisingly, the black didn’t fight him too hard. Did horses remember things, like who had been gentle with them, even if it was only one instance? The horse allowed Chad to put a halter on him and lead him back to the stable. The man swung along on his crutches behind. The napping man was awake now, looking grumpy. The man with the broken leg shied away from the presumed owner, staying outside when Chad entered. Chad noted this, but said nothing. He approached the man, wrinkling his nose in distaste at the man’s appearance, for the man had the eyes and nose of a drunk.

“Take care of your horse, mister? Where’s that lazy bum? Boy! Boy, get your butt in here!”

Chad held up a hand. “No, just looking to buy some tack. Got anything for sale?”

“Over here.”

Chad bought a rather fancy rig with a matching bridle, using up a good chunk of his bankroll, but he didn’t have to save any for a horse, so…. The black was a spooky animal to saddle and threatened to jump at any time. Chad practiced what he had seen Joe do and found the method to work rather well. Gently whispering and rubbing, he soon had the black saddle cinched on and the bit in the black’s mouth. He bid farewell to the irritable man, walking out the door. The man on crutches was there waiting. “Where you headed?” he asked.

Chad situated his bedroll and saddle bags. “Mmm, I don’t know. Haven’t decided yet. Why?”

“Was thinkin’ on leavin’ town myself.”

Chad wasn’t sure why the young man was telling him this, but recalling his earlier aversion to seeing the stable owner, he asked, “Leave, huh? That your pa in there?”

“My pa? Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just seemed logical since you’re working here but you don’t seem to like him very much.”

“Well, the feelin’s mutual. The marshal just talked him into hirin’ me on while my leg mended. And today I’m gettin’ the cast off, least that’s what Doc says. Then I’ll be free and clear.”

“That right? So, where are you headed?”

The man squinted at him through dark lashes. “You ever been to Texas?”

Chad laughed a little. “Oh, yes. Seen a good chunk of it, actually.”

“Ever thought much about seein’ it again?”

Shrugging, Chad answered, “I don’t know, maybe. I reckon it’s about like any other place. You looking for a trail partner?”

“Maybe. I got a job lined up down there. You look like a man who can handle himself. Seems to me that you might be able to find a place there, too.” The man’s blue eyes were never still, making eye contact with Chad here and there, but then looking away, not missing anything. Chad knew what made a man so edgy; it was the same restlessness that plagued him. He knew what kind of work the man was alluding to, and it honestly surprised Chad that a man so young would be involved in that sort of occupation. He considered the young man fully. Almost the same height as himself, the man was whipcord lean. He was rather handsome but was intense and angry looking, something that was the complete opposite of Joe. Chad felt a deep sense of loss wash over him when he thought of Joe, something that was not missed by the other man. “People like us can’t afford to make attachments,” he said. “We try, but then they just end up gettin’ hurt. I know, better’n most. As well as you do.”

To any onlooker, the comment would have seemed drawn out of the blue, but to Chad it made perfect sense. He nodded sadly. Chad shook his shoulders and took a deep but shaky breath. “Texas, huh? Why not?”

The man gave a roguish half grin. He held out a tan, strong hand to shake. “Name’s Harper, Jess Harper.”

*****

Alone again. Just when things were going right, he was alone once more. Left with a stupid note he could hardly read filled with half baked reasons-why. Even so, the kind townspeople of Dodge had made him feel more than welcome, and more than once Joe considered staying. Quint and he had more than a passing friendship, and Joe actually bunked with the blacksmith until he was fully recovered. Their past with the Comanche was the beginning of the camaraderie. They would spend evenings speaking of the old ways in their unique tongue. Even with all the good times Joe had with Quint, somehow it just wasn’t the same as the times he had with Chad.

Chad…. Joe had never experienced loneliness so strong until that day he found out that Chad left. He didn’t realize how much he actually cared about that crazy boy until he was gone. He wanted nothing more but to follow Chad and find him, but letter was too vague. It simply said:

Dear Joe

I am really sorry for the pain I caused you. It wasn’t fair for me to trick you and it is all my fault that you got hurt. Please forgive me, if you can. I hope to one day see you again, but for now, it would be safest for you if I left.

Chad

The paper was crumpled from being crushed repeatedly in anger. Each time Joe would smooth the scrap, as if keeping the note would give him some sort of clue as to where Chad had gone. The moment he had been able to walk, he was down at the stable, asking questions. The manager had little to say: Chad had ridden south, to Texas maybe, with a good-for-nothing saddle tramp called Harper. Fear gripped Joe at this news, for Chad was trouble waiting to happen and without Joe there to look out for him…the large man feared the worst.

It was these fears that drove Joe to leave Dodge. Miss Kitty had offered him a job, as had Quint, but he felt a tie to Chad calling him. The real catch was that he had no earthly idea where to start looking. Where would he go? Quint had asked as much one evening as they sat around the embers of the forge. Joe didn’t have a concrete answer, but he felt an unknown force pulling him south, back home.

South is where he ended up wandering, searching, always asking. Chad Cooper? C.J. Cooper? Harper? All these names he offered any person he met, with limited results. With the setting sun always to his right, he rode on and on.

*****

Joe Riley was tired. He had seen hundreds of miles, and if he were to estimate, he was nearing the Mexican border. Chad had expressed interest in seeing Mexico, so Joe decided to look into some border towns. He knew deep in his heart that soon he would have to give up. There was no reasonable excuse why he was still looking for his friend. If Chad didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be. Joe knew he was being unrealistic, but he just had to try. Chad was worth the trouble, even if the reckless man didn’t believe it himself.

Ahead of him, Joe saw what he assumed to be a creek with the trees growing beside it. He was reminded of the creek where he had taken care of Chad almost half a year ago. He felt the familiar sadness creep over his heart, but he quickly pushed it away.

He could just detect a team of horses and a wagon there with a bit of movement. Joe slipped the thong that held his six-gun in its holster, prepared to fight if necessary. He reached the wagon quickly, his keen eyes making out a boy filling water barrels. At his approach, the boy leapt into the wagon bed, rifle ready. Joe reined in and allowed the horse to drink about 20 yards from where the wagon was parked. After some silence the boy spoke. “What do you want here, mister?”

Joe dismounted slowly, keeping the horse between himself and the rifle. The boy jumped nervously, shouting, “Don’t move, mister!”

Joe felt foolish feeling threatened by a mere boy, but just the same held his hands up. “Easy, son, watch where you point that pea-shooter.”

“Sorry, but there have been some bad men ‘round here lately. How do I know you ain’t one of them?”

Joe smiled, trying to appear unthreatening. “Just passin’ through, boy.”

“That’s what they all say.”

“I’m no gunman. I’m just lookin’ around, trying to find work.”

“Oh really? I know what kind of work you’re talkin’ about.”

Joe waved his arms, forgetting to be careful. “Boy, I ain’t hurtin’ you! Just put that gun down and I’ll be on my way.”

“You can leave, but I ain’t puttin’ this away.”

Joe found himself becoming angry. He pointed a finger at the boy. “Now, boy, I got places to be, and I don’t need to go there with a bullet in my hide.” He took off his hat, rubbing at his hair.

“Hold it!” the boy shouted, and jumped out of the wagon. The boy came closer, giving Joe a good look at him. He was about 13 years old or so and wiry. He stopped about 5 feet away, his rifle still held in front of him. “Take out your gun, easy, and take out the bullets. Then get out of here.”

Joe wanted to cuss at the boy for being so dang obstinate, but he decided to do as asked if just so he could go on his way. Stepping out from behind Buck, he carefully pulled his gun and started to take out the cartridges, putting them in his pocket. He glanced up and noticed the boy staring, hard, at Joe’s waist. He looked down himself, asking, “What?”

The boy’s eyes were huge and he looked as though he had seen a ghost. “Where did you get that belt?”

Joe looked up, feeling a shock go through him. “It’s been mine…for a long time….” He studied that boy fully and unconsciously took a few steps forward. The boy did nothing to stop him, the rifle sagging in his grip.

It couldn’t be…could it? “Do you…live on a farm with a little cabin with a dog run? And a mama who likes to sing in the evening by the fire? And a sister who can spit fire one minute and hug the breath out of you the next?” Joe continued, feeling his heart soar in hope. “Are you…Joey?”

The boy looked at him distrustfully, as if not wanting to believe it. “I like to go by Joe, now. Wait, how do you know all that stuff?” Then realization seemed to come over him. “That belt…,” his murmured. His wide eyes searched Joe’s face. “You…you’re…”

“It’s me, Joey. I’m…back.”

*****

Ellen finished her laundry for the day, hanging the worn and faded clothes on the line. Hearing a clatter, she quickly went inside the dog run where the shot gun stood. She peered around the corner, ready for whatever came. Dangerous men had been crawling the plains lately, their presence a sign of the trouble ahead. Range war. Rivers were running low during the summer months, and many of the big-time ranchers, friends before, were now becoming territorial on water rights. Ellen and her family were caught in the middle of it all. Their little spread was insubstantial compared to everyone around them, and they were easily lost in all the anger…but that didn’t mean a thing when bloodthirsty men were going where they pleased, their hearts black, not caring if innocents were injured.

When she saw that it was only her son returning with the water barrels, she lowered the gun slightly. The boy was not alone. The two stopped in the yard, her son in the wagon and the man on a buckskin. Joey said something to the man before hopping down from the seat to come over to where she was standing. The man remained where he was.

“Joey, who’s that with you? Hope it’s not some saddle tramp lookin’ for work. We ain’t got any for him to do.”

“Ma, why don’t you put that away and sit down here.” Joey looked flushed and excited.

“What’s goin’ on, son? Who is that man?”

“Just sit down, Ma. It might be a shock.”

Ellen complied, mostly because she was too confused to do anything else. The man dismounted and walked toward her, his stride slightly familiar. He was tall and lanky yet extremely fit, his muscles rounding out his red shirt. Besides that walk, there was nothing recognizable about him. He reached them in no time, for his steps were long. He removed his hat respectably, revealing straight dark-brown hair. Wait….

“It’s been a long time,” the man said hesitantly. “But I remember everything about you like I had a picture. You look just the same.” He smiled, and somehow, Ellen knew. “The first time we met, you called me by my true name, the one I use now.”

Ellen’s hands went to her mouth, tears in her eyes instantly. “My boy! My son!” She leapt to her feet but became overwhelmed by emotion and fell forward. Her long-lost son was there, his arms catching her against himself in a desperate embrace.

“I…I didn’t even know I was lookin’, until I found you,” he said brokenly.

“My son, my son,” she said over and over, the beat of his heart the only sound in the world she wanted to hear. He was home.

*****

Much had changed since Joe had been at the Riley farm. Yes, it was this family’s last name he had chosen. The most extreme change involved the women of the farm. Idabelle had married a farmer and was living roughly 8 miles away. Joe was glad for this, because before he left, she had completely bloomed into womanhood and had even started to make eyes at Joe himself, something he was not at all comfortable with. She was not the only one to marry; Ellen had married just four months ago, to a widower whose children were grown. John was a strong man of character and was a good match for Ellen, who had been a widow for far too long. It made Joe’s heart glad to know that she would be cared for from now on.

With this turn of events, Joe felt that he was no longer needed. Before, when he had first come to them, he was the only man. Now, Ellen and Joey had John to care for them. Sure, they would love to have him, but Joe hated to intrude. These feelings were mystifying for the family, for they could not understand why he always went to sleep in the barn.

The urge to continue his search for Chad only increased as he stayed there. Only a few weeks had passed since stopping here, and though he was enjoying every minute — especially when Idabelle visited with her new baby — he knew his time here would not last forever. Joey loved having him around. He would follow him everywhere, mimicking his every action. Joe enjoyed the boy’s company; they would spend the long days fishing and working the fields, always finding time for naps in the shade.

The idyllic life suited Joe while at the same time drove him crazy. There was plenty of work to tire him during the day but at night he would lay awake. Gazing up at the stars, he couldn’t help but wonder if Chad was doing the same, or if he was already staring up at 6 feet of dirt. These thoughts would drive him mad if they continued, for each time they popped in his head, he had no choice but to get up and walk off some of the anxiety. Each day he would rise with the sun, having gotten little sleep to begin working to drive away the ghosts of the night.

*****

Ellen was no fool; she knew her surrogate son was a changed man. Prison did that to people, especially a gentle soul like Joe’s. He was as loving as ever, but there were dark spirits hanging about him. His face was haggard and was beginning to show his exhaustion. She knew he no longer felt like he belonged, but, selfishly she kept him there. She knew that he would never leave unless he knew she would be alright without him there.

The wound that had been there from her husband and son’s death had been healed by Joe’s, or Wasápe’s, arrival, but when he had been taken away, it had been ripped open again. A year she had spent grieving, but soon another stepped up: John. He had purchased a little soddy by the creek…and the rest was history. Now, her wound was healed again, and though she had missed Joe with all her heart, she no longer laid awake at night to imagine his suffering. Deep in her heart, she knew that he was being looked after, that someone would take care of him like he had cared for them.

Therefore, she knew that her life would continue without him around, but still she held onto him even though she knew something was bothering him. She decided that she would have to let him go soon or he would drive himself into the ground worrying.

He was out chopping wood one day, and Ellen stopped a distance away to admire him. He had removed his shirt, and his bronze skin was shining from perspiration. He swung the ax, controlling the tool with precision. Each piece of wood was cut into perfect burnable sizes, split just right.

She knew that he was aware of her presence, for no one could sneak up on this man. He carried some of the wood to the pile, only then turning to face her. “How are you, Ma Ellen?” he asked, kindly. In an unconscious action, he picked up his red shirt and started putting it on. She knew that he had been beaten in prison and was ashamed of it. Though the scars were fading, Ellen knew it would be a long time before he willing showed his body to anyone.

“I’m fine, thank you, Joe.” It had been difficult for everyone to begin using that name, they were so accustomed to his Comanche one. It had also been rather confusing, what with Joey beginning to go by Joe himself, but they had made do.

He buttoned his shirt but let the tails hang. “Anything I can do for you?”

She sat on a log he had dragged over for cutting. “I just want to talk a spell. Do you mind?”

Even if he had, she doubted he would have said so. He crouched in front of her, perfectly balanced. “What’s on your mind?”

She swallowed before speaking. “Joe, I know you’ve been through a lot since you left here, but I don’t think that’s what’s been bothering you. You left something behind out there, didn’t you?”

He shifted on the balls of his feet and looked away. “I was left behind, by somebody…somebody who needs me.” He looked back at her. “But it doesn’t matter. I found home, and I’ll stay.”

Ellen felt grieved but said what she had been putting off. “Joe, it honors me that you would call this place your home. You are family, and always will be. But still, you are a free man to go as he pleases. The day when the Rangers took you away, I told Joey that it wasn’t right to keep you here because it was hurting you, keeping your free spirit tied down. I know you feel obligated to us, but you don’t need to be. Joey and I have John, and we have each other. We’ll be fine. I know we will. There will always be a place for you here, but right now there’s somebody who needs you more than we do. Please, don’t take this wrong, but you should go and find that somebody. Go with our blessing.”

Joe looked so conflicted yet so relieved that Ellen felt the need to hug him. She did just that, kneeling before him awkwardly and taking him into her arms. He held her for what seemed like an eternity, and Ellen cherished every moment of it. Finally, he pulled away. “Thank you, Ma Ellen. I will write to you,” he said, a sad smile on his face. “I learned to do that while I was gone. I tell you that?”

They continued to enjoy each other’s company until Joe was finished with the wood. That evening, Joe announced to the family that he was planning on moving on within the week. Joey took it rather well, surprisingly. Ellen suddenly realized how mature her youngest was becoming, and it made her proud.

A few days later, Joe was packed, his buckskin pony standing hipshot in the yard ready to go. Joe bade them all farewell, promising to write.

“Be careful out there,” John warned. “Range war is brewing to the south of here, close to the border. Stay away from those border towns. That’s where the trouble is.”

Ellen watched him ride away, she and Joey standing in the same place as the last time. This time, however, Ellen knew that he was riding to his destiny. It was unmistakable.

*****

Joe Riley rode fast, covering large expanses of territory. Buck was in good shape from a month’s rest and handled the high speed well. On about the third day since leaving the farm, Joe came across a well-traveled road. Lucky for him, it was heading south, toward the border. John’s words in his mind, Joe had kept vigilant. He had seen some groups of riders yesterday but had remained hidden from their sight until they moved on. Now, a road seemed like a safe place to be, for he would be less likely to unintentionally trespass.

After a couple hours on the road, he came upon a stage station. The keeper told him of trouble brewing to the southeast and that he had seen many men riding through, all marked with death. Joe described Chad to him, but the man told him that they all looked the same to him. Still, it was worth a shot.

A day later he was on the edge of a town. He stopped for a moment before entering, for it had been a long time, and he was out of practice. A woman out in her picket-fenced yard squinted up at him as he reined in. “Excuse me, ma’am, but what town is this?”

She glared at him with open hostility. “Can’t you tell? It’s only the rowdiest, most devil-filled city this side of the Rio Grande.”

Joe nodded politely, trying to stay pleasant. “I’m sure it is, ma’am, but please, I’m new here. What’s it called?”

“Laredo, Texas, home of the Texas Rangers’ B Company, though little good they seem to be doing with all this commotion.”

Joe felt a jolt go through him. Texas Rangers? Here? He immediately felt self-conscious, like a posse was tailing him. He thanked the woman and reluctantly rode deeper into town.

The place was brimming with life, men on horses and wagons alike. Joe groaned in frustration. How would he find anyone in this mess of humanity, let alone Chad, who may not even be here? He heard some crashing coming from a nearby building. He tied Buck to a hitching rail, who pinned his ears irritably at a nearby horse. The other horse stood calmly and ignored the mustang, giving Joe the feeling that this horse was used to standing outside with other horses, unlike his own mount.

Joe walked up toward the building, pausing to look up a sign. It dangled over the boardwalk, making Joe wonder if it could hit him in the head if he didn’t duck. The sign was made of grey-painted wood with black letters reading, “Cactus Saloon: Finest in Laredo.” Well, if it was the finest, then surely Chad would be there if he was anywhere in this town.

Joe stepped up to the batwing doors, looking around inside for a sign of Chad. Everyone in the building was busily having a good time, either at the bar or the gaming tables. A woman in a cheap silk dress was singing by a piano to raucous applause. A brutish man was clapping the loudest, his face lit by a big grin. The strangest thing about the spectacle was that the woman was singing in Spanish, yet had reddish hair and a fair complexion. A cursory glance around the place told him that Cooper was not here; he turned to leave.

A gentle hand on his arm stopped him. He turned to see the woman who had been singing standing there. “Where you goin’, cowboy? Don’t like my singing?”

He felt his face warm; she was beautiful, and he did like red heads. “Ah, no ma’am, I’m just lookin’ for someone, that’s all.” He averted his eyes to the crowd.

“Why don’t you stop lookin’ up there and start lookin’ down here.” She pressed against him, her velvety voice near his ear.

“Um, well….”

The brutish man from the bar elbowed through the crowd, butting in. “Didn’t you hear the man, Carmelita? He said he had places to be.”

“Oh, you’re not in that big of a hurry, are you, big guy?”

Joe didn’t like where this was going. He wasn’t that naïve to know that the man beside Carmelita fancied himself to have a claim on the singer. He did not come this far to get into a fight.

“Sorry, ma’am, but I better be goin’ on. Lookin’ for someone, and he ain’t here.”

She put her hands on her curvaceous hips, distracting him. “I see everyone in this town, one time or another. Maybe I could help you…but it’ll cost you a drink.”

“Carmelita…,” the brute growled. He had a voice like metal on rock.

She fluttered a jeweled hand in his direction. “Not now, Ranger, I’ve got a costumer.”

Ranger? Joe swallowed uncomfortably, and the other man noticed. “Haven’t I seen you before?” the shorter man asked.

“Don’t think so. I’m new here,” Joe said, trying to appear relaxed. “Maybe I will have that drink.”

Carmelita grinned, her bright red lips a startling contrast against her ivory skin. “This way, mister.”

Joe tried to ignore the ranger, but the man was making it difficult. “Take care, stranger. That’s my girl you’re messin’ with there, don’t forget it,” the man said, his growling voice just barely heard over the din.

“Oh, I won’t.” The man was so familiar to Joe, but he could not recall…then it hit him like a sledgehammer between the eyes. He was one of the rangers that arrested him almost two years ago! Joe tried to walk nonchalantly away from the brooding ranger. It was that voice that brought back the memory. Who could forget a grating drawl like that?

Carmelita was seated near the back, a bottle and two shot glasses already on the table. “Sit down, cowboy, and tell me all about it.”

Joe eased himself into the chair next to her, his back to the wall. “Not much to tell. Just driftin’.”

“Just drifting? Haven’t I heard that one before? Every bum who comes through here says they’re ‘just drifting’, but nobody’s not going anywhere. Let me tell you, cowboy. People are always going somewhere, whether they know it or not.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She was hard to figure.

She poured Joe a drink. He took it in his large hand and took a small sip. It went down relatively easily, though it burned like fire in his empty stomach. He tried to hide his discomfort from the saloon woman. She smirked at him. “Just off mama’s milk, sonny?”

“Hardly,” he defended, but milk sounded soothing to his throat right now. He turned the glass between his fingers. “You said that you see just about everybody in this area one time or another.”

She leaned forward, her scooping dress line leaving nothing to the imagination. Joe tried to keep his eyes on her face. “Sure I do, and remember most of them, if they’re good lookin’. Your friend come through here?”

“Maybe, not sure. He’s a little shorter’n me, dark hair and green eyes, skinny. He’s got a cross-draw holster.”

Her perfect lips twisted. “Anything else? That’s not much to go on.”

“He might be goin’ by C.J. Cooper, or Chad, and…well, he fancies himself a ladies’ man.”

She laughed suddenly, a loud but not unpleasant sound. “Chad Cooper? That little dapper dan is a friend of yours?”

Joe sat bolt upright, almost knocking the bottle over. “He’s been here?”

Her eyes looked toward the ceiling as she thought. “Sure, ah…about four weeks ago. He was with a real cute dark-haired boy. That one had a temper on him! Started a fight when some fool insulted one of my girls. Chivalry is not dead, apparently…”

“Did he say where he was going?” Joe interrupted.

“Going? I’m not sure they were leaving. There are plenty of spreads around here hiring guns. Trouble’s brewing between the Sheppard and McTavish spreads. Could be they hired on to one of those. Couldn’t be sure.”

“Obliged, ma’am.” Joe moved to get up but stopped when he felt her soft hand on his arm.

“What’s your hurry, sonny? Don’t you like sitting here with me?”

“Sure, but he don’t.” The ranger from earlier was sitting just a couple tables away, his eyes never leaving Joe’s face.

Carmelita pouted. “Oh, him? He doesn’t mean anything to me. I like my man to be young, strong, and handsome.”

Joe appraised the ranger. “He looks strong enough. I think I’ll just be movin’ on, now.” The last thing he needed to do was get into a fight with a ranger, especially one that could recognize him at any moment.

He stood, shrugging off Carmelita’s hand as she tried to stop him again. He strode as quickly out of the establishment as possible. He made his way to Buck, who had settled companionably with the bay from earlier. He was tightening the cinch of his saddle when he heard an all too familiar grating voice. “I just know I’ve seen you before, boy.”

“Maybe I just got one of those faces.”

“What’s your business in Laredo?”

Joe was getting tired of questions. Couldn’t a man just mind his own affairs? “Just lookin’ around, that’s all.”

“Well, I think you ought to look elsewhere than here at the Cactus.”

Joe was fed up. Ranger or not, he was going to tell him what-for. “Listen, here, Ranger. I don’t care one little bit about that gal in there, so would you just lay off?”

The ranger bristled, reminding Joe of a porcupine. “Well! I suppose you’re too good for her, is that it?”

Joe threw his hands up in the air. “NO! Oh, never mind.” He tried to get onto his horse, but the ranger grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around.

“You’re just askin’ for it, ain’t you,” the ranger growled before popping Joe right in the nose.

Joe saw stars and immediately his eyes began to water. He touched his upper lip, and his fingers came away red. “What the…? You crazy…”

“BENNETT!!!”

A man in a corduroy jacket and ribbon tie interrupted the two men. “Private Bennett, what is going on here?”

“Uh, nothin’, Cap’n Parmalee, nothin’ at all.”

“I can see that. After you finish doing ‘nothing’, I want you to sweep out the barracks.”

Joe couldn’t help but smirk at the ranger’s dejected countenance but quickly hid his face behind his handkerchief when the Captain’s grey eyes focused on him. “Are you injured?”

“No, just a bloody nose,” Joe said, muffled by the cloth.

“What? Let me see,” the captain was already reaching for Joe’s face. It was it this moment when Joe felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle… These two were the ones that arrested him, both of them together in front of him!

“I’m fine, really,” Joe said hurriedly. He had to get away! In the back of his mind, he knew he was free and clear, but somewhere along the line he had lost his papers stating him to be so.

“Cap’n, there’s something real familiar about this one. Think we ought to take him over to the office?”

Joe’s pulse spiked again, and he was beginning to get light headed. His bloody nose wasn’t helping the feeling.

The captain considered Joe. “I’ll have to ask you to lower that kerchief. Just as a precaution. The private here might not be much, but he has a good memory for faces.”

Joe had to comply for if he made a break for it, they would become suspicious, and he might get shot. Besides, it had been two years since they had last seen him, and he did look quite a bit different back then. He reluctantly lowered the stained cloth, sniffing when blood started to drip onto his chin.

“Reese, you might have broken this man’s nose. What were you…” He cut off so abruptly, Joe nearly panicked. Serious eyes flickered up and down Joe’s length, not missing a thing. The eyes came back to meet Joe’s, squinted slightly. “That’s a nice knife you got there. Mind if I have a look at it?”

Joe tried to keep his hand from shaking as he reached for the handle. “Not at all. Here.”

The tall man accepted the blade, looking it all over. “Where did you get this?”

Joe shrugged. “Shucks, I don’t know. Some store in…Austin.”

“Really? I could have sworn it came from a place further north…Oklahoma maybe? On a Comanche reservation….”

“That’s quite the story,” Joe bluffed.

The captain nodded. “It sure is. How about hearing more about it in my office? It’s just up the street here.”

Joe held his hand out, requesting his knife. “That sounds fun, but just the same, I think I’ll be leavin’ town now.”

“I don’t think so, pard,” Bennett said, his gun drawn.

Joe wanted to slap himself on the forehead. He should have left when he had the chance. Looking between the two experienced rangers, he felt any fight drain out of him. Dropping his hand to his side, his shoulders slumped, he surrendered. “Fine, lead the way.”

“Good,” Parmalee smiled, pleased there was no violence. The trio walked toward the office just as a large group of horsemen left town.

Joe stopped abruptly and grunted when Ranger Bennett crashed into him from behind. He cast a look over his shoulder in annoyance, but let it ride. He turned his attention toward the captain. “Who are those men?”

The captain was glaring at Bennett but answered Joe’s question. “Those are some men that just hired on to Sheppard’s outfit. Say they’re cowboys. Ha! Everyone knows what they are…and the trouble is, we can’t do anything about it until actual fighting breaks out.” Parmalee gestured ahead. “Just over there. Let’s go.”

*****

The large man was sitting in the chair, looking nervous. Reese was nervous too, because although the man’s gun and knife were laid on the Captain’s desk, he still looked dangerous. Reese bet that if the man wanted, he could crack walnuts, or skulls, with those arms.

The captain broke the silence. “So, young man, you sure have changed quite a lot since we saw you last. When did you get out of prison?”

The man’s hands were flexing over his thighs, looking ready to flee. Reese tightened his grip on his sidearm, just in case.

“Around 6 months ago, or so.”

The captain jotted down something on a slip of paper and handed it off to Jimmy, who often patrolled the street looking for odd jobs. “Take this over to the telegram office and have it sent to the Huntsville Prison.” He turned back to the man in the chair. “It shouldn’t take too long to get this cleared up. Just want to check your story. You’ll be free to go after that.”

This seemed to calm the big man somewhat. He leaned against the back of the chair, his deep brown eyes on the floor. His nose had stopped bleeding, but there was a little dried blood in his stubble.

Reese sat on a chair backward, his arms propped on the back. “Hey.”

The man’s face came up, just revealed under the brim of his tan hat. “Hey, what?”

“I just knew it! All along!”

“Knew what?”

“That you were that Comanche kid we found out there! You sure have changed. You just about had me fooled, but not for long, no sir! You can’t outfox ol’ Reese!” Reese slapped his leg in glee.

The man rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “Yeah, I should have known better, I guess,” he said sarcastically.

“Well, now, no sense gettin’ down on yourself. You tried your hardest, and that’s all a man can do.”

“Bennett.” The captain was giving Reese that look.

“Yes, Cap’n. Don’t talk to prisoners, got it.” The man jolted in his chair slightly, and Reese tried to fix the situation. “Not that you’re a prisoner, kid.”

The captain put his hand in his face. “Sorry about him, Mister….” He trailed off as if to give the man a chance to offer his name. He didn’t. Parmalee went ahead and asked outright. “What are you calling yourself these days? In that get-up, I hardly think you’d be going by a Comanche name now.”

The man reluctantly relinquished the information. “Uh…Riley, Joe Riley. And it is my real name…my white name anyhow.”

“You have a job, Mr. Riley?”

Riley shifted in his chair. “Not for some time, now. Got laid up in an accident ‘bout three months ago. Still comin’ off of that.” His hand unconsciously rubbed at his shoulder, as if to massage away an ache.

A clatter sounded outside announced Jimmy’s arrival. He breathlessly entered the office and handed off a scrap a paper. Parmalee flipped him a coin, and the boy left.

“Says here that you’re free and clear.”

Joe let loose a ragged sigh.

Parmalee continued. “What are your plans, Riley? Do you plan on staying here in Laredo?”

Joe felt much more comfortable now after receiving the news. “It all depends on whether or not I can find the man I’m lookin’ for. He may be around here.”

“What is the nature of this search?”

“I ain’t here to kill him. He’s a friend. Just heard that he might be down here.”

“What’s his name?”

“Cooper, Chad Cooper. Sometimes he goes by C.J., though.”

Parmalee looked thoughtful. “Gunfighter, is he?”

Joe answered reluctantly. “You could say that.”

Ranger Bennett interjected with, “Say, Cap’n, wasn’t there a Cooper come out of Louisiana? Said to be real handy with a gun?”

Joe nodded, feeling dismay in the pit of his stomach. Just what had Chad been doing before the Favor drive? “That’s him, alright.”

Parmalee looked grim. “There are so many hired killers around here, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were nearby.”

“Chad ain’t no killer,” Joe said defensively, “but the man he’s with might be. Goes by the name of Harper.”

Parmalee eyebrows rose. “Harper? From up north?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

The captain opened a drawer and rifled around. He pulled out a stack of old papers, some yellowed with age. Shuffling through them, he finally pulled out one, a wanted poster. He turned it around so Joe could see. “This him?”

Joe studied it a moment. “Could be. I only have a description of him; never actually seen him. But that definitely sounds like him.”

Parmalee handed it sheet to Bennett, who looked it over. “I’ve seen him before, Cap’n. He was here at the Cactus about a month ago. I didn’t know he was wanted. Otherwise, I would have brought him in.”

“If Jess Harper is around, then it can only mean one thing: either Sheppard or McTavish is planning a fracas, and soon.”

Joe leaned forward. “This Harper, what’s he wanted for? Murder?”

The captain shook his head. “No, stage robbery, and only suspected. The trouble with these gunfighters is that they are so fast they might as well be murdering the people they go against. Those poor devils don’t even stand a chance.”

Oh, Chad. What have you gotten yourself into?

The captain was giving Bennett some commands, and the ranger left the building. Joe had missed what had been said, the result of being lost in thought. “What’s happening?”

The captain stood, getting a rifle out of a rack, checking the load. “I’ve had enough of just sitting around, waiting for the trouble to start. We’re going out to look for Harper and any other wanted men that we happen to run into. McTavish and Sheppard may be hard men, but I doubt they’ll want to get into trouble with the state of Texas for hiring fugitives.”

If Chad was with Harper, like Joe believed him to be, he could be in real trouble. If these rangers found Harper, there could be gun play. Joe made a quick decision. “Mind if I ride along?”

Parmalee stopped mid stride. “What for? You’re not a ranger.”

“My friend might be out there. I sure would like to stop him from doin’ somethin’ stupid.”

The captain shrugged. “Suit yourself, but if you get yourself shot, blame your friend, not me.” He handed Joe his gun and knife. “Truth be told, I would be happy to have another gun along. This could get dangerous.”

Joe grimly sheathed the pistol and blade. “I’m used to it by now.”

Parmalee stared at him for a moment, his face unreadable. “Once this is all over, we need to have a talk.”

*****

They rode down a dusty trail together, Parmalee a little ahead on a large bay and Joe and Bennett just behind. Ironically, Bennett was riding the small bay that had been so friendly with Buck earlier. Joe admired the little horse as he stepped along, his arched neck bobbing. Bennett noticed the gaze. “Yeah, a real nice little pony I got here. Name’s Cactus.” The horse’s ears pricked back at the sound of his name. “Haha, don’t get too cocky there, Cactus. Can’t have your head gettin’ too big.” He looked over at Buck. “Glad to see you’re ridin’ a horse that doesn’t belong to the U.S. Cavalry.”

Joe bristled a little at this statement, but one look told him that the ranger didn’t mean anything by it. He really wasn’t too bad of a fella, this Reese Bennett. His voice would take some getting used to, though. Joe wondered if he ate glass for breakfast to get a growl like that.

The ranger was studying Joe, who decided he didn’t mind. “You don’t talk very much, do you?”

“I suppose I just don’t got much to say.”

“Worried ‘bout your friend, ain’t you?”

“Yeah…if you knew Chad, you’d worry about him too. Seems like that guy can find trouble easier than flies to a cow pie.”

“Sounds familiar,” Parmalee called back, indicating Reese.

“Humph,” Reese grunted, sending the captain a look.

Joe smirked. Yes, this tough guy just wasn’t too bad. He bet that Chad would probably have a good time riling the ranger, just for kicks.

They reached the McTavish spread after about an hour. The place was built like a fortress, its buildings reminding Joe of Huntsville. He shook away the memory.

Parmalee led them directly the front of the ranch house. Joe noted that their arrival had not gone unwatched. There were shadowy figures lurking in windows and doorways, a flash of sunlight on metal showing here and there.

The heavy wooden door opened, swinging on strong hinges. A heavy man in his sixties stepped out, squinting at the harsh sunlight. “Parmalee,” he barked. “What the devil brings you out here? And with an escort? You expecting trouble?”

“Should I be, McTavish?” Parmalee asked, his typical veiled expression on his face.

Joe looked around, his eyes never resting. He felt like he had a bull’s-eye painted on his back. Buck pawed the ground, sensing his rider’s uneasiness. Joe’s gaze skittered across the big rancher and noticed the man’s deep-set eyes boring into him. He continued to stare at the man on the buckskin, though he answered Parmalee’s question. “I don’t think so, Ed.” The captain’s mouth tightened, and Joe wondered if very many men got away with calling him by the nickname. “At least, I don’t want any,” the rancher continued. “But I can’t say that for your surly-looking recruit here.” He pointed at Joe.

“Don’t worry about him, Mac. He’ll do as I tell him.”

Joe felt indignant that the captain would talk about him in such a way, but figured it best for his own purpose if he remained silent.

The rancher continued to taunt the group. “Where do you find your boys, Ed? He looks like a half-breed.”

Bennett could probably hear Joe’s molars grinding, what with all the worried glances the ranger was throwing his direction.

“Same place you find all of your hands, Mac. That’s why I’m here. I’ve heard talk that you’ve been doing some hiring of your own.”

The heavy man put his hands in his pockets. “Sure, always am. Work has to get done, you know.”

Parmalee’s lips quirked. “Oh, I know. These men that you’ve been putting on, you have them sign an account book?”

The rancher nodded, his face beginning to turn red despite his efforts to look unaffected.

“I’d like to see it. Rumor has it you’ve got a wanted man on your payroll. Just want to clear that up.”

“This way,” McTavish said through gritted teeth.

Parmalee dismounted, saying, “Mind if my men water our horses?”

McTavish smiled, but it was fake. “Go ahead.”

“Keep your eyes open for Harper or any other wanted men, Reese,” Parmalee murmured as the captain handed over his reins. The two older men entered the fortified structure, Parmalee towering over the stocky rancher, despite the man being a decent size.

Joe and Reese walked over toward the windmill slowly. Once again, Joe was grateful for his big hat which enabled him to somewhat hide his face while he looked around. Letting Buck stand at the tank, he walked around like he was just stretching his legs. Joe nonchalantly inspected a corral with a few horses inside was only a few steps from the windmill. He felt a bit of shock come over him as he noticed a familiar looking black gelding with a blaze and socks. Could it be? His suspicion was confirmed when the horse whickered at him and sniffed the air, as if remembering Joe.

The front door slammed, and Joe whipped around to see Parmalee exit the house. His fast stride spoke of his anger and frustration. McTavish sauntered out, looking smug and controlled. “Sure you can’t stay for supper, Ed?”

Parmalee mounted, and Reese and Joe hurried to imitate. “Maybe another time, Mac. Be seeing you.”

“I’m sure you will be,” the rancher said gleefully, waving like a child.

“That man…,” Parmalee growled, the rest of his words lost as they loped from the ranch.

A distance down the road the captain pulled his horse to a walk. “He had a ledger alright, but I doubt any of the names in there were real ones. I didn’t see Harper or Cooper in there anywhere.”

“He sure acted like he was hidin’ something,” Reese said.

“Or someone,” Joe added. “I think I might have seen my friend’s horse in the corral.”

The captain stopped his horse entirely. He leveled a cool gaze at Joe. “What do you plan on doing about it?”

“I don’t know. Find him and make him leave with me….” He thought about it a moment. “I ain’t exactly sure how I’m gonna do that.”

Reese spoke up. “How about joining up with the Rangers? Couldn’t ask for a more noble job, no sir. Serving your country, that’s what you’d be doin’.”

Joe choked. Join the Rangers? Really?

Parmalee nodded, his face serious. “I actually agree with Bennett. You seem like a man in control of himself and capable to handle problems. The Rangers can always use men like you.”

“Men like me? I’m afraid I don’t follow you, Cap’n. I ain’t done nothin’ but trail after you.”

“Just trust me when I say that I’m pretty good at judging good character when I see it.”

Joe frowned. He had never really pictured himself as a lawman. Maybe someday, when this mess with Chad was all cleared up, he would consider it. “Thanks a lot, Cap’n, but I think I like bein’ my own boss for now.”

Joe could tell that both the captain and Reese, were both disappointed. “Suit yourself,” Parmalee said, starting his horse again. “But don’t try taking matters in your own hands. The folks on the McIntosh payroll might not take it too kindly, you pulling away one of their guns. Better just to wait for him to show is nose first.”

*****

Chad walked out of the bunkhouse, hearing voices from the yard. A clatter of hooves announced that someone was leaving the ranch, and as he came around the corner of the building, he caught just a glimpse of three horsemen riding away. Chad could barely make out that one of the horses was a buckskin, sparking a memory he had been trying to push away.

He turned around, almost running into Jess. That man moved like a panther, another thing that reminded Chad of Joe. Eye to eye, they looked at each other. The two men were so similar in coloring and build, once they had been mistaken as brothers.

“Who was that?” the younger of the two asked.

Chad shrugged, trying to look as though he didn’t care.

Jess’ eyes narrowed, his brows furrowed. His left eyebrow had an interesting habit of pointing up on the inside whenever he was concerned. “Looked to me like lawmen.”

A scrape on the path announced someone’s approach. It was McTavish’s right-hand man, Leon Slater. “You boys see them three leaving?”

“Yeah, what about them?” Chad asked.

Slater hooked his thumbs in his belt, rocking on his heels. “Them’s Rangers.”

Jess’ chin went up. “So? We don’t care about no Rangers.”

“Well you should, Harper. They was lookin’ for you.”

“Me?” Jess asked calmly, though his body went rigid. “I ain’t wanted for nothin’.”

“That’s not what Parmalee said to the boss. He came here to look through the ledgers, wondering if your name was in them. Saw the wanted poster myself.”

Jess’ hands were at his sides, his fingers flexing. “What’s your point, Slater? Thinkin’ you might like tryin’ for the reward?”

Slater held up his hands. “No. As a matter of fact, I don’t care a bit if you’re wanted or not. Just thought I would let you know. You ought to not go into town, maybe.”

Jess’ head twitched to side, sizing Slater up. One could almost taste the tension in the air. “Why you tellin’ me all this, Slater?” Jess asked, his voice gravely. “You like me or somethin’?”

“No, not really, but I like your skill with that.” He pointed at Jess’ gun. “Just try and stay low. Boss’ orders.”

“What’s got him spooked, Slater? Parmalee sniffin’ too close?”

“Naw, Parmalee’s a big man, but he’s more brains than gunman. He knows better than to pick a fight with McTavish. No, it was Parmalee’s new man. Looked like he meant business.”

Jess smirked. “Really? Who was he?”

Slater shrugged. “Never seen him before. He was mean-lookin’ for sure. Don’t know how good he is with a gun, but he had a knife on him that didn’t look like he used it for pickin’ his teeth.”

“Never heard of anybody like that. How ‘bout you, Coop?”

“Uh, no, don’t think so.”

Slater turned to leave. “Just the same, we might find out sooner rather than later about him if you set a foot in Laredo, Harper. So, don’t.”

The two men watched Slater walk away. Harper turned around abruptly, kicking a rock angrily. “Dadgum it! I’ve just about had it.”

Chad followed Jess as the man walked toward the corrals. “What do you mean, Jess?”

They reached the rails, and Jess hung his arms over the top. “All this hangin’ around. We were hired on for protection, but what exactly are we protectin’? McTavish never goes anywhere. He’s too scared.”

Chad laughed lightly. “Don’t let him hear you say that.”

Jess gave a small half-smile. “Yeah…and that’s another thing. Don’t you get tired of people tellin’ you what to do? I like to be my own boss.”

“Well, I suppose, but sometimes it is nice not to have to worry about where your next meal will come from and all that, where you’ll go next, or who’ll bail you out of a jam.”

“Hm, yeah, I guess.”

Chad eased up next to Jess until their shoulders were almost touching. He looked hard at Jess’ face, seeing what he feared was on his own: uncertainty. “You thinking on quitting the boss, Jess? Moving on?”

Jess glanced at Chad before turning his eyes westward. “I ain’t put down any kind of roots in a long time, Coop. Hard for me to stay in any place for very long.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“Not sure you do, Coop. You’re not like me, Coop. You like havin’ a soft bed every night and friends around all the time.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothin’, if you like that sort of thing…if you’re that kind of person.” Jess shifted his weight and unintentionally bumped Chad’s shoulder. Jess quickly pulled away, as if the touch had hurt. Chad was curious at the action, but then remembered that Jess had been wounded by many. It had made him shy of extended human relationships, even to the extent of abhorrence of physical contact.

Chad and Joe’s relationship hadn’t been at all like that. Friendly slaps on the shoulder or a teasing poke in the ribs was an everyday occurrence, and Chad craved that confirmation of friendship. Jess was about as easy to touch as a cactus, something Chad had learned fast. Even when sleeping, Jess was as jumpy as a long-tailed cat around rocking chairs. Nightmares were a regular event for the young man. Chad couldn’t even begin to imagine what brought them on, but Jess became rather dangerous if roused from one. Chad had suffered a black eye once when he had made the mistake of shaking Jess’ shoulder in attempt to wake the gunfighter.

Chad’s musing helped him understand what Jess had been trying to say. He couldn’t trust anyone and hated to be tied down to anything or to owe anybody. It was actually driving him crazy to stay in one place with the same people, for sooner or later, favors would begin to be exchanged. This was what was driving Jess up the wall. Chad admitted to himself that Jess was beginning to be hard to be around, flying off the handle at the smallest incidents.

“Well…Jess, I won’t keep you if that’s what you want.”

“I don’t know what I want,” muttered Jess, so low it was hard for Chad to hear. Chad silently agreed. So far, the life of a glorified body guard did not suit him. He was starting to feel the itch to move as well, something he did not usually experience. He decided that if Jess left, they would go together.

However, there was just something about Laredo that suited him. He liked the Spanish taste of the town as well as the perpetual summer-like climate. The cold just didn’t suit him. He was a southern boy, born and bred.

His mind wandered back to ranch’s visitors. He brought up the topic to Jess. “What about those lawmen, Jess? What are you going to do about that?”

“That was a while ago. Just a big misunderstanding. I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those Rangers forgot to throw that poster away, I guess.”

“Why the act, then? Why didn’t you tell Slater about it?”

“I reckon you haven’t noticed that me and that boar haven’t been gettin’ along too well. Just wanted to see where he was goin’ with all that palaverin’.”

“I wouldn’t push him if I were you, Jess. He’s liable to take a shot at you sometime.”

“No, he knows better. He couldn’t stand a chance against me, and he knows it.”

“He stands a chance against your back, Jess, and he’s yellow enough to try it.”

Jess leveled an unreadable look in Chad’s direction. “You’re actin’ awful concerned about me, Coop. Didn’t know you cared.”

“Just don’t want to have to break a sweat burying you, boy. It isn’t very close to Saturday.”

Jess’ face showed mock horror. “Takin’ a bath before Saturday? I’d hate for you to have to do that on my account. Alright, I’ll keep my mouth shut…for now.”

Chad shook his head. His concern was genuine. He really would hate for something bad to happen to Jess. He was the closest thing Chad had for a friend…the only one since what happened in Dodge. Chad just didn’t think he could handle it if something were to happen…again.

*****

After visiting McTavish, Parmalee decided that trying to discuss anything with two men who hated each other was futile. Time was better spent elsewhere. Therefore, the three men rode toward Laredo. Reese was anxious to get back, as was Cactus. The horse had eagerly picked up the pace slightly when his nose had been turned homeward. Reese rubbed the little horse’s neck, watching Joe Riley out the corner of his eye. The young man looked tired as well yet still carried himself with balance and grace, unlike Reese, who felt down-right bow-legged and made no effort not to slouch in the saddle.

The trio halted for a brief break in the shade of a cottonwood. Riley stretched himself out, his hat over his eyes. Soon, a rider approached. Reese and Riley stayed where they were while Parmalee walked out to meet the man. Reese recognized him to be a fellow ranger. He wondered what Miller was doing all the way out here. He glanced over at Riley, who appeared to be listening to the men’s conversation. “His ears must be better’n mine,” Reese thought.

Parmalee rejoined the two, looking angry. Reese winced; he hated that face. It usually meant more work for him. “Sheppard is planning on making the first move. He’s gathering his cattle and is driving them to the river.”

“McTavish won’t stand for that, Cap’n,” Reese commented.

“I know. That’s why I’m getting together every available ranger to head out there and see if we can keep this from getting bloody.”

“You comin’ along Riley?” Reese asked, turning toward the young man — or more accurately, where the young man had been lying only moments before. “Hey, where’d he go?” His buckskin was gone as well. The remaining men looked around, but there was no sign. He must have slipped away into the hills during the captain’s conversation with Miller.

“The fool must’ve went out on his own!” The captain looked angry, though Reese couldn’t understand why.

“Well, Cap’n, he’s free to go where he chooses, ain’t he?”

“He’ll get himself killed! Or start the fighting before we can get there!” Parmalee punched the palm of his hand with his fist temperamentally.

Reese hoped that didn’t happen. He liked the young man; he would hate for anything bad to befall him. He also didn’t want to miss out on a good fight either. “What can we do, Cap’n?”

“Nothing for him. He’s made his own bed, he can sleep in it. Get mounted! We’ve got to hurry!”

*****

The Texas sun had set hours ago, and darkness was thick on the prairie. An uncharacteristic fog had settled around the river, and the only light provided was from the meager light of the stars, but only a small amount could burn through the heavy gloom. Chad hated the dark, especially when he had to be out in it. The idea of driving cattle at night just made no sense, but apparently Sheppard wanted to do a sneak approach to the water rather than do it in broad daylight.

It was just so blamed dark. Chad doubted he could hit the side of a barn, let alone a trespassing cowboy, on a night like this. They were waiting at the river where they expected Sheppard to approach. It had the best grass and good entry points for the cows to get a drink; up and down from where they were situated were high banks with few crossing places.

He could just make out the glowing embers of cigarettes, marking where some of the men were waiting. A stamp of a hoof now and then was the only sound besides the gentle murmur of the river. He felt a presence beside him and almost jumped out of his skin.

“Ease there,” a familiar voice rasped, “it’s just me.”

“Jess,” Chad breathed, relieved. “A man could start believing in ghosts out here without hardly trying.”

“I know what you mean,” Jess whispered. “But that’s not what I’m afraid of right now.”

“You afraid, Jess?” Chad asked, his own voice quivering a touch.

“I’d be a fool not to be. I don’t like this, not one bit. I got the feelin’ somethin’s about to go down.”

“You and me, both.”

Chad heard a quick breath, something he took for half a laugh. “I reckon I should have lit out this afternoon, instead of just talkin’ about it,” Jess said, humor in his voice.

Chad was about to reply when all of a sudden, it started. He heard the low rumble of hooves, characteristic of cattle on the move.

He heard the low call of Slater from down the river. “Get ready!”

With sweaty palms, Chad gripped his rifle. “This isn’t right, this isn’t you. You’re better than this,” Joe’s voice sounded in his mind. He shook his head, trying to clear it. Blasted fog, giving him the creeps.

Jess moved away and Chad almost called him back, fear rising in his throat. How could it be that a man younger than himself could have more experience on the taking of life? Chad couldn’t handle it. He just couldn’t. Just when he had gone to finish Jeb, he knew that he really couldn’t have pulled it off. Now, it was the same. Right or wrong, he couldn’t gun down unsuspecting cowboys. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to use the water? It was for everyone. He couldn’t…murder.

He made a decision. He untied the black’s reins from a tree. Suddenly, Jess was beside him. “What’re you doin’?” he hissed.

“I can’t do it, Jess.”

“You ain’t…turnin’ yellow, are you?” Jess sounded hurt.

“No, I’m not yellow.” As best as he could in the darkness, he looked Jess in the eye. “This is the bravest thing I’ve done in a long time. I’m bucking the tiger, Jess. I’m warning Sheppard.”

Jess grabbed Chad’s arm in a vice grip, bruising flesh. “Think on what you’re doin’, Coop. You’ll get yourself shot, by either side!”

“Sorry, Jess. This is what’s right. I’ve got to stop those men!”

“Coop, just listen to me. I can’t let you go through with it!” He applied more pressure to his grip than Chad thought possible.

“Jess, let go of me now!” He pulled his hand back, ready to punch Jess if necessary.

BANG!

Jess jerked, and for a moment Chad thought the other man had been shot. However, the shot came from far off. It sounded like it may have come from the direction of the herd, which was still a distance away. “What was that?” Chad asked.

“I don’t know…wait, listen!”

The two men stood breathlessly, listening. Then, Chad heard it. It was a man shouting, then another answering. “Is that coming from the herd?” Chad asked.

“I can’t tell,” Jess whispered back.

Next, they heard Slater yell, “Men, get mounted! Sounds like somebody started our party without us! Fifty dollars to the man who brings down the one who done it!”

If Slater wanted the man dead, then Chad wanted to help keep the man alive. He and Jess were mounted in no time and joined the rest of the McTavish men as they rode toward the Sheppard outfit. After riding what Chad estimated to be about half a mile he could just begin to make out the white faces of cattle. In front of them was a man mounted on a pale horse, waving his arms in the air and shouting, “Ambush! Ambush!”

Sheppard men leapt into action, many coming to the front, guns firing. Chad heard a bullet whiz by his head like an angry wasp. One of the McTavish men wasn’t so lucky; he fell with a scream. The men in Chad’s group were at a disadvantage. They were out in the open, while the Sheppard outfit had the high ground. Many were already laying flat on the ground, firing. Confusion reigned as more McTavish men went down, horses and men equally getting hit.

Chad lost track of Jess in the mix but he couldn’t worry about him at the moment. The man on the pale horse was in the line of fire! He was charging off to one side when his horse fell, spilling the rider to the ground and almost rolling on top of him. The memory of Joe getting crushed in a similar way rose up before Chad, overwhelming him. He charged forward, intent on rescuing the man.

He pulled his horse to a halt beside the man, holding out a hand. The man had gained his feet, but his horse had run away. The man reached for Chad’s outstretched arm — and yanked him from the saddle. Chad grunted as he hit the ground. His head struck the ground hard and his breath rushed out in one whoosh. “Wait,” he gasped, but the man could not hear him. The man must have mistaken Chad’s intentions. Why should he think Chad was anything other than one of the men trying to kill him?

Chad tried to move but was paralyzed from lack of breath. He could only lie helplessly as the man jumped aboard Chad’s horse with an athletic move that seemed familiar.

The events around him that happened next were lost to Chad as he tried to rise. Not only was the wind knocked out of him, he was also bleeding on the back of his head where it had struck the ground. He felt dizzy and sick when he rolled over to his stomach, attempting to get onto his hands and knees. He finally managed to get his legs under him, but fell back down almost immediately. The sudden movement caused his stomach to reject his supper. He flopped away from the mess and just laid there, waiting for the nausea to pass.

An indeterminable time passed and the steady gunfire eased. A few shots rang out, further away, but soon those died out as well. A few riders were approaching him, but Chad didn’t care. His head hurt so badly death seemed welcome. Someone dismounted, spurs jingling as the person walked toward Chad. “Coop,” the man called. “Coop, is that you? Are you alright?”

“Jess,” Chad breathed, relief washing over him like cool water.

A match flared to life and Chad cried out and threw his arm over his eyes as the light caused a spike of pain. “Sorry,” Jess apologized. “Just gotta take a quick look.” Jess’ hand went under Chad’s neck, lifting it to inspect the back of his head. Chad heard Jess blow out the match before pressing a cloth on the wound. “You’re bleedin’ pretty bad there, Coop. What happened?”

“Horse spooked. Threw me. Hit my head on somethin’ hard.”

The brief silence that followed spoke volumes. Jess probably suspected Chad’s words were not the truth; maybe he had even seen what had happened. Whatever the case, he did not voice his suspicions, but rather quipped, “More than likely the ground hurts more than you do, what with your head bein’ as hard as it is.”

“Ha. Ha.”

“He alright?” somebody else asked. It sounded like Slater. Chad had guiltily hoped that he would be among the casualties.

“He will be, if this bump on the head don’t scramble his brains any more than they already were.”

“You always this clever, Jess? Or am I out of my head and imagining all this?” asked Chad.

Jess put a canteen to Chad’s lips. “Quit whinin’ and just drink.”

Chad took a small sip and rinsed out his mouth before spitting the water onto the ground, trying to rid his mouth of the acidy taste of the contents of his stomach. Jess tried to get him to drink again, but Chad pushed it away. “What happened, Jess?”

“Somebody tipped off Sheppard’s men. They were ready for us; we didn’t stand a chance. But they did turn their herd back.”

“Who was it? Did you see who warned them?”

Slater answered, his voice triumphant. “Couple of the boys went after him. I recognized him. He was that new ranger!”

“How…” Chad was cut off when he heard horses coming, and fast.

“Who’s that?” Slater’s friend asked.

“Drop your weapons! This is the Rangers!”

“Get outta here!” Slater yelled, already turning his horse and galloping toward the hills. The other man followed close behind.

“Come on, Coop, we gotta get movin’!” Jess tried to pick Chad up off the ground, but Chad was too dizzy and could be of no assistance. He tried to push Jess away.

“No, Jess, leave me! You’ve got to get out of here before they catch you! There’s no time!”

Jess was a stubborn man. He propped Chad against his horse’s side and mounted. He reached a hand down to Chad. “Grab on! I’ll pull you up!”

The rangers started to fire, and Chad knew their time was up. He slapped the bay on the rump as hard as he could. With this action, coupled with the gunfire behind him, the horse no longer could stand still. He bolted away while Chad yelled, “Go, Jess, just go!”

Jess had no choice but to go where his horse carried him, but he managed to control him to a prancing stop twenty yards away. In the dawning light, Chad could make out the young man looking over his shoulder. Chad sunk to his knees, his hand raised in a salute. Jess waved back, his mouth set in a firm line, regret marring his handsome features. A gunshot sounded, breaking the moment, and Jess was off as fast as his horse could carry him. He soon disappeared over a rise, vanishing from sight.

Chad lay down, awaiting his fate. He doubted he would ever see Jess again.

*****

Reese Bennett’s exhaustion flew away as soon as he heard the gunfire ahead. With Parmalee in the lead, they charged into the valley, the rising sun to their backs. A few mounted men fled at the rangers’ approach. One lingered momentarily, waving. “Who’s he wavin’ at? Us?” Reese wondered aloud. “Cocky son-of-a-gun.”

The main group of lawmen broke up, some chasing after one group of men, some, another.

“Bennett!”

“Yes, Cap’n?”

“Check for wounded.”

“Yessir.”

Secretly he was relieved not to be stuck chasing down the fleeing outlaws with the rest of his comrades. He’d rather not spend any more time galloping around than necessary. However, once he started to ride around, he soon wished he’d gone along with the others. The carnage wasn’t the most he’d seen in one place before, but it was still bad. Cactus shied when Reese tried to ride him up to a body. “Steady, Cactus, you can stay here.”

He dismounted and walked toward the man, fearing that he’d find the body of that nice young man, Joe Riley. Guilty relief swept over him when he realized that it wasn’t the boy but some other cuss he didn’t recognize. Reese put the man’s hat over his face in respect before moving on to the next man, one he remembered from McTavish’s outfit.

He moved quickly, never lingering over any of the bodies. He finally figured he’d found all of them, five total. Not a single one was still alive. A few injured horses were moaning on the ground. Reese regretfully put them out of their misery.

Sadness weighing down his body, he pulled himself into the saddle. Movement caught his eye—and his heart leapt in his chest. It was Joe’s horse! He spurred Cactus into a quick canter over to where the buckskin stood…near a body.

“No, no, no!” Reese shouted, dismounting before Cactus was stopped completely. “Joe? Speak to me, boy!”

The man groaned, holding up a hand. “Stop shouting, sir. You have a voice like a bullfrog and my head is killing me.”

Reese staggered to a stop. “What…you’re not Joe.”

“No, regretfully not.”

Reese walked the last few steps to where the man lay. He was young, about Joe’s age, with a bloody handkerchief wrapped around wavy dark hair. He was lying on the ground, his head turned slightly to the side in order to keep from touching his injury to the ground. His eyes were tightly pinched shut in pain. Reese felt inclined to feel sorry for the man, but soon that sympathy was lost in anger. “Where’s Joe? What have you done with him?”

“Nothing…I don’t even know who that is.”

“Oh really? You just happened to have his horse? Just borrowed it, did you?”

“Horse? Mister, if I had a horse, I’d be long gone.”

“Joe’s is standin’ right here. What happened? He clobber you on the head when you stole it from him?”

“No, somebody stole my horse and I hit my head when he yanked me off.”

“That must’ve been why you decided to help yourself to Joe’s horse then.”

“NO!” the man shouted, and then winced at his own volume. He weakly propped himself up on one elbow. “I don’t even know anybody around here named — BUCK!”

“Buck? What….” Reese was astounded as the young man got to his feet, dizzily staggering over to the buckskin horse, who stood calmly. The stranger fell against the horse’s neck, almost hugging the animal. This man was crazy. He turned toward Reese, who was nervously fingering his pistol.

“You know Joe?” he asked Reese. “How? How long has he been here? Where is he?” The man looked insane, the bandanna slipping over one eye.

Reese scratched his head. “You should know! You have his horse! Wait…how do you know Joe?”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s in trouble! We’ve got to find him!” The young man carefully picked up a dark hat off the ground and hung it from its stampede string around his neck. Straightening slowly, he started to make a move to mount the large horse.

“Now, just hang on a minute, you,” Reese commanded. “You’re under arrest.”

“Sure, sure, but we don’t have time for that right now.”

“You stole Joe’s horse! For all I know, you killed him and left his body someplace.”

The man turned his head, his one visible eye full of anxiety. “Joe is my friend. I would never hurt him…not intentionally.”

Reese crossed his arms, feeling his resolve weaken under that mournful gaze. “Well, how do we even know where to look?”

“I’ll know.”

“How?”

A small, tight smile spread across the face of the stranger. “Same way Joe found me.” He pulled himself up into the saddle labouredly.

“Yeah? And how’s that?”

“Go where the trouble is.”

The long echoing crack of a rifle sounded, followed by a few short blasts from a handgun from somewhere behind them. Strangely, the gunfire was coming from the opposite direction from where the majority of the rangers had ridden. The young man jerked with each shot before spurring the muscular buckskin toward the fight. Reese had no choice but to swing up on Cactus and follow. The boy was fleeing arrest, after all.

*****

Chad rode Buck at a quick lope, each step jarring his aching head miserably. However, he felt it in his gut that Joe needed him, so he goaded the horse to go faster. He could hear the ranger close behind him; for an older looking man, he could keep up as well as anyone younger. The ranger brought his small bay up so he was riding alongside Chad, keeping pace for a few strides before speaking. “You know where you’re goin’?”

“I thought we went over this….”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” the ranger said, shouting to be heard over the horses’ pounding hooves. “Them shots are comin’ from a blind canyon up ahead. I reckon Joe didn’t know where he was goin’ neither. If that is Joe up ahead, he’s prob’ly trapped by some of those varmints,” squinting eyes shot a quick glare in Chad’s direction, “you was ridin’ with.”

“First we stop whatever’s goin’ on up ahead, then I’ll reckon with whatever comes after that,” Chad said, his foggy mind having difficulty focusing on the task at hand, let alone what might be happening in the canyon or what might happen afterward. If he wasn’t killed Chad knew the likelihood of going to prison or getting hung were pretty certain, and Chad knew a lot about chances. It was part of who he was, knowing when the stakes were high.

The two men reached the badlands quickly, bare stone leaving little room for error or a misstep. Reluctantly they slowed down, allowing their horses to carefully weave through boulders and crevices. The shooting was more sporadic now but, thankfully, still continuing. Silence would have meant the fight was over and that they were too late to do any good.

Chad allowed the ranger to lead, for the older man had knowledge of the area. Bare rock made it hard to track where the men ahead might be, and with the echo quality the land had, it was impossible to trail by sound alone. They followed the easiest trail, one a man would take if in a hurry. Here and there were signs that someone had been along there recently: a scrape from a shod hoof, a bullet casing. These signs confirmed that the trail they were following was the right one.

Suddenly, a gunshot sounded very close, as well as a shout. Chad and the ranger stopped, listening. Chad put a finger to his lips and dismounted. He walked over to the ranger. “Let’s leave our horses here. Bring your rifle.”

As carefully as they could, they crept forward, both watching for loose rocks or anything else that could alert anyone to their presence. The canyon loomed ahead. Chad looked over at the ranger who nodded in affirmation. This was the box canyon. They walked for a while, the sounds from ahead growing louder. Eventually, they could hear men talking angrily. Chad recognized one of the voices. “Slater,” he growled.

The ranger was checking his rounds in his pistol. “You know who’s up there?”

“Yeah, he was the boss of my outfit.” Chad had an idea. “Listen, how about you sneak up on that ridge and see if you can get the drop on them with your rifle.”

The ranger nodded, his eyes already planning his route. “Wait,” he said, turning back. “What are you gonna be doin’?”

Chad grinned, feeling his confidence return. “What I do best, friend. Bluff.” He left the ranger behind and strode as confidently as he could with a cracked head down the canyon floor. He pushed the bandanna up, trying to get it completely out of his eyes. It kept slipping down, so he yanked it off and stuffed it into a back pocket. Gingerly he put his hat on, wincing as it made contact with the abrasion on the back of his skull. He needed all the help he could get, and blocking the sun from his eyes would definitely be beneficial.

He came to where a large boulder blocked the path. The men ahead had evidently abandoned their horses, for there stood a small group of saddled animals, his own among them. The black whickered at him in greeting, and Chad rushed to put his hand over the horse’s nose. Glancing around, he was relieved to see that Jess’ sturdy bay was not present.

Men’s voices carried well in the canyon walls. “The horses are restless, Slater. Want me to go check on them?”

“Sure. That ranger ain’t goin’ nowhere. We got him treed.”

Chad stepped out in the open, trying to look innocent. A man he barely knew clambered over the boulder, stopping in shock when he noticed Chad. “Cooper, what are you doin’ here?”

“Howdy, Mike. Heard the shootin’. Got that ranger cornered up here, huh?”

“Yeah,” Mike said suspiciously. “What about it?”

“He stole my horse, remember? I was just trying to get it back. Don’t figure he’ll be needing it where he’s going, huh?”

Mike laughed, a sinister sound that grated on Chad’s frayed nerves. “Slater will be glad to see you. We can use gun of yours.”

“What for?”

“Follow me.”

Chad went over the boulder, feeling a bit of nervousness creep into his body. He’d made it this far, but his charm wouldn’t work well on Slater. The man was waiting for Mike’s report, along with one other man Chad recognized to be a man named Nolan. Both were hunkered down behind a large rock, gouges cut in the stone where bullets had missed them. From the look of it, Joe was giving them a hard time.

“Cooper? What in tarnation are you doin’ here? I thought you were all stove in?” Slater looked flushed and sweaty, like he’d been working hard….working hard to dodge Joe’s bullets.

Chad tried to look relaxed as he answered. “Well, I was, Slater. But when the Rangers rode into the valley, they went right past me like I wasn’t even there. Found a horse wandering loose. Heard you fellas having too much fun without me, so I decided to catch up with you.”

Slater nodded, seeming to believe the story. “Harper apparently didn’t enjoy our little party. He cleared out a while ago.”

“Why are you guys still here, Slater? The Rangers will be coming through here soon with all the noise you’ve been making. They won’t like you gunning for one of their men. You leave now, nobody will be able to identify you. You’ll be in the clear.”

“Why do you care so much, Cooper?”

“I don’t.”

Slater crossed his arms, a sneer on his face. “Really? It seems pretty strange to me how you got taken down by that Ranger. What were you doin’ ridin’ so close to that big fella instead of just pluggin’ him, Cooper? You weren’t tryin’ to pick him up or somethin’, were you?”

Chad felt his stomach twist, and it wasn’t from his head injury. “Slater, why would I do a thing like that? It’s on account of that ranger that we’re in this mess now.”

Just then Mike climbed over the boulder. Chad hadn’t even noticed the skinny man had left; he had been too wrapped up in talking to Slater. “Leon,” Mike said, his voice sounding too flat, like he was trying to hide something.

“What, Mike?”

Mike eased around in the narrow canyon until he was at Slater’s side, his voice low and serious and he spoke. “There are two horses at the mouth of the canyon. He ain’t alone.”

Slater’s eyes turned deadly. He levered himself off the rock, ducking out of sight of anyone further down the canyon by hanging close to one wall. “How about that, Cooper? Find two horses, did you? Didn’t anybody tell you it sure is hard to ride two at the same time?”

“Well, shucks, Slater, you don’t know how fun it is until you try it.”

Mike sniffed the air dramatically. “I smell Rangers, Leon.”

Chad laughed. “Do they have a specific scent? If they did, you’d overpower it with your own…fragrance, Mike.”

Mike growled, taking a small step forward when Slater put a hand out, stopping him midstride. “Easy there, Mike. There’s an easier way to settle this.”

“Yeah? And how’s that?”

“Yeah, how is that, Slater?” Chad asked.

“Just hop up there on that rock, Cooper. If the Ranger takes a shot at you, we’ll know you’re on the level. If he don’t…,” Slater trailed off, licking his lips like he could taste Chad’s death.

Chad shook his head in tight movements. “No thanks, Slater. I’d rather stay down here.” He was ready.

“Suit yourself, Cooper. Can’t say I don’t wish it was Harper that was here, instead of you. He’d been askin’ for it a long time, but you,” he smirked again, his eyes glowing maniacally, “you’ve been a real good boy up until now. What’s changed, Cooper? Gettin’ soft, are you? Or just yellow?”

The insults rolled off Chad like water on a duck. “Now you’re hurting my feelings, Slater.”

“That ain’t all I’m gonna hurt.” Even before he made the first move, Chad knew what was coming. He could read it in the man’s eyes. When Slater’s hand flashed downward, Chad was already reaching. In what seemed like slow motion, slugs burst forth from both men’s guns, hurtling through the space between them.

*****

Earlier, Chad had been nervous while waiting with Jess for the shooting to start. However, it was not his lack of experience with a gun that made him so afraid, but rather that particular type of fighting. He was not a person to wait in ambush. No, Chad J. Cooper was a gentleman from New Orleans, home of some of the most infamous duels in the South. He was accustomed to facing a man eye to eye, speed and accuracy his top friends, not lucky shots at men on horseback.

However, one of his top friends seemed to have betrayed him. His speed was almost up to where it normally was, but Chad’s accuracy was hindered by his head injury. Therefore, he did something unconventional for a Southern gentleman: he ducked. More specifically, he dropped and rolled, firing in Slater’s direction as he went down.

Smoke filled the narrow canyon, making it difficult to see, but Slater’s green shirt was visible through the haze. Instinctively, Chad continued to fire, fanning the hammer with his hand.

The sounds of gunfire echoed long after the actual discharging of weapons ceased. Chad blinked, trying to see through the smoke and dust. The air cleared to reveal Slater’s body lying crumpled against one of the canyon walls, his face blank in death. Immediately, Chad felt the powerful sense of loss he always experienced after a fight; after all, he wasn’t a monster. He had a soul like any other man, and Chad was a particularly emotional man. However, now was not the time to grieve, for Chad only had one bullet remaining and two potential enemies lurking nearby.

“Ought not to have done that, Cooper,” Nolan said slowly. He rose from where he had been kneeling on the sandy floor, his gun already drawn.

“Yeah,” said Mike. “Slater was a pard of ours’. Apparently, you ain’t.”

Chad moved carefully to sit up on his knees, holding his pistol loosely and unthreateningly. He cursed himself for not being more careful to ration his ammunition. He briefly considered Slater’s gun, but the man’s body was so far away. “Now, boys, let’s not do anything rash—”

Nolan brought his gun up just as Mike pulled his from its holster. Knowing he could only get one, Chad said a quick goodbye to life before shooting his final cartridge at Mike. The moment the bullet left the barrel, Chad threw himself toward Slater’s gun.

Once again the deafening sound of gunfire filled the small space, and with every passing moment, Chad expected to feel a slug tear into his body…and then feel nothing at all. He scrambled away on his belly from the two men, making a difficult target while trying to find Slater’s gun.

Finally, when his hand found metal, he was truly baffled by the fact that he was not dead yet. He whipped over on his back, Slater’s gun ready but was shocked by what he saw. Mike’s body was sprawled face down in the sand, unmoving. Nolan was still on his feet, swaying like a tree in the wind, his mouth open in breathless surprise. “How…,” he wheezed before his eyes rolled up in his head and he too fell prostrate to the ground.

Chad was wondering the same thing himself until on the ground before him he noticed a shadow. Peering upward he saw that directly above him stood a dusty figure waving a carbine over his head. The ranger! Chad got to his feet and watched the man make a clumsy descent down the rough rock until he landed awkwardly on the sand.

“You sure don’t waste time tryin’ to get shot, boy,” the ranger panted, making his growling voice difficult to understand.

“I never rush into anything. You just don’t climb fast enough,” Chad teased lightly, though he was feeling huge amounts of gratefulness for the other man’s presence.

“Are you complainin’ about the fact that I just handed you your life back on a platter?”

“No, not at all. Your skill with a rifle is to be admired.”

“As is yours with a six-gun, boy. You plugged that one dead center, I reckon,” the ranger said while pointing at Nolan’s body.

“But I didn’t get a shot off at him. I thought you did.” Confused, they both walked over to the man’s body. The ranger turned him over with his tan boot. Protruding from the man’s chest was an antler-handled knife, its steel blade piercing right into the heart.

Chad recognized the knife instantly. Wheeling around frantically, he searched for his old friend. Seeing no sign, he called out, “Joe? Are you here, Joe?”

The ranger took up the call as well, his bass voice carrying like a dynamite explosion. “JOE! JOE, BOY, WHERE ARE YOU?” Chad, his ears ringing, glared at the ranger, but admitted to himself that the man’s method was effective.

“Over here,” a quiet voice said, barely heard over the reverberations.

“JOE!” boomed the ranger, charging over to where Joe Riley had appeared almost out of thin air. His lanky form was sprawled over a boulder, for all the world looking like he just woke up from a nap. The ranger grabbed the young man’s hand in an enthusiastic handshake. “It sure is good to see you, boy, yes sir! We thought we would find you sprawled out on the prairie somewhere, what when you run off on us. That weren’t a smart thing you done, but brave, no mistakin’! Did I ever tell you that you should think about joinin’ up with us rangers?”

“Uh, yeah, Reese. More than once, as I recall.”

“Well, you keep thinkin’ on it, real hard-like.” Reese suddenly seemed to remember something, so he continued. “Fact is, if you do want to join up, I’ll be headin’ straight back to Laredo with my prisoner here. He stole your horse, so I’ll reckon you’ll want to press charges, seein’ as how he was one of the bunch you was fightin’ with last night.” Reese turned toward Chad. “Unless he’s a friend of yours or somethin’.”

Friends? Chad doubted it, not after what happened the last time they were together. One look at Joe told Chad all he needed to know about how Joe was fairing after the ordeal. To be completely honest, Joe looked absolutely haggard, almost like he hadn’t had a decent rest since the time he was unconscious from the incident. His face looked thinner than Chad remembered, and when Joe slid off the large rock, a small wince pulled at the corner of one eye when his left leg touched the ground…the same one that had been crushed under Chad’s black horse that day.

Joe answered Reese’s question with a sigh. “Yeah, or somethin’.”

Reese nodded like he understood, but clearly he didn’t. “Uh, okay. Well, I’m gonna start hauling one of these poor devils back to the horses. Joe, will you do me a favor and secure the prisoner? Don’t want him runnin’ off.”

Joe gave Reese a brief nod, after which the stocky ranger started dragging a dead man down the canyon floor, leaving the two remaining men alone. They just stared at each other for a time, the air heavy with unspoken thoughts. Finally, Joe started to say something. “Chad,” he began.

Chad held up a hand. “No, Joe. Let me start. I know you’re mad at me. It’s all my fault — again! You almost get killed every time I’m around. So, just go ahead and take my gun, tie me up, do whatever you have to. Take me back to Laredo and throw me in jail. I might even give you a decent fight.”

Joe’s face turned dark, a sign he was becoming angry, something Chad wasn’t expecting but welcomed. In fact, he almost wanted Joe to hit him. Maybe the pain to his body would actually take away some from his heart.

“I’ve ridden hundreds of miles just to find you, Chad,” Joe said carefully, as though trying not to shout.

Guilt over the past consumed Chad even as fear rose. Joe was a dangerous man, not one to be crossed, and had considered Chad a friend, making the betrayal all the worse. Chad suddenly knew why Joe had tried so hard to find his former trail partner. Chad was partly afraid, partly relieved that his days of self-loathing were about to come to an end. “Well, here I am, Joe! You finally found me. Just get it over with before that ranger gets back!” Chad paused, confused when Joe did nothing.

“Chad….” Joe looked uncertain.

“Here, I’ll make it easier on you,” Chad said desperately, wanting it to be over before his nerve ran out. He yanked out his pistol and shoved it close to Joe’s stomach. “I’m gonna kill you, Joe, if you don’t draw!”

Joe nudged the end of the pistol away. “Chad, your gun ain’t got no bullets.”

Oh, right. Joe, ever observant. “Well, this one does,” Chad said with false bravado as he pulled Slater’s gun from his belt. He threw his own gun to the ground and put the loaded gun into his right hand. “Do it, Joe, before I plug you and make my escape.”

Joe’s deep brown eyes were searching Chad’s face. “Chad….”

“Joe, I swear by all things holy if you don’t hurry up….” Unexpectedly his voice failed him. Were those…tears on his face? No, it was just sweat, surely.

“I’ve been on the trail for a while, Chad, with only one thing on my mind: find you.” Chad’s aim started to waver. He concentrated on keeping his arm steady. Joe’s arms went slack at his side and his back straitened, a sign that he was preparing to draw. He continued speaking. “Now that I’ve found you, there’s just one thing left to do.”

“Do it, do it, do it…,” Chad repeated, his finger tightening on the trigger, trying to appear threatening. He just couldn’t take the guilt anymore.

Joe reached out his left hand, and Chad tensed as Joe grasped the gun and pointed it upward, away from himself.

“I’m gonna fight you, Joe, I’m gonna…”

Chad was unable to continue as the air was crushed from his lungs as Joe’s arms yanked Chad into a fierce hold. Chad tensed, believing this to be the end. Joe would finally have his revenge. However, the arms did not feel menacing, like a man with the intent to harm, but rather, was Joe…hugging him?

Joe pulled back, and Chad was floored to see a smile on his face. “Chad-boy, why do you always have to be so dramatic about everythin’? I didn’t ride all this way to kill you!”

“You…didn’t….”

“Shucks, Chad, it was an accident! Why would I blame you for somethin’ you couldn’t control?”

Chad tried to back up but Joe was still gripping his arm. “Well, why wouldn’t you? I put you up to it. It was my doing that you almost got killed.”

“Almost, Chad, not completely. I’m still alive and a bit wiser from the whole deal. Now I know better than to trust you further than I can throw you.” At Chad’s wounded expression, Joe continued to say, “At least in matters of a gambling nature.”

Chad felt a small smile creep across his face. “Can’t blame you there…pard.”

The relief on Joe’s face at hearing the old nickname made Chad grin even larger.

The moment was broken when a sweating and hot Reese came stumbling back into their presence. “Hey, you two! What do you think you’re doin’? Joe, you’re supposed to be securing the prisoner, not jawin’ with him.”

Chad remembered with a sinking heart that the reunion was going to be short lived, for he was off to jail.

“Now, hold on, Reese. Chad here was thinkin’ on declarin’ amnesty.”

“I was?”

“He was?”

“Well, yeah,” Joe said, smirking, his eyes incredibly mischievous. “You sure do owe me, Chad, for somethin’.” He rubbed at his shoulder, reminding Chad of the incident in Dodge. “Just thought I would give you a chance to repay the favor.”

Chad crossed his arms. “And how exactly do you figure on doing that?”

Joe ignored Chad’s question, instead turning to Reese. “Hey, you remember that time when you and Parmalee picked me up for horse stealin’?”

“Yeah, that was a while ago.”

“You told me then that a man could declare amnesty from his crimes if he joined up with the Rangers, right? I had stole a horse, but you seemed to think I could get outta of it if I signed up for the Rangers, remember? That still apply?”

“Well, maybe. You’d have to talk to the Cap’n.”

Chad couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Join the Rangers? Never. “Now listen here…”

“Chad,” Joe cut him off. “You don’t want to go through what I did…goin’ to the pen, or worse.” His eyes sparked slyly. “Besides, you owe me. Big time.”

“Why you…” Chad sputtered. He stalked around in a tight circle before turning back to thrust a finger in Joe’s face. “This is blackmail, and you know it!”

Joe grinned, a smile that was infectious to Reese, who let out a small chuckle as he caught on to Joe’s scheme. “The Rangers would be glad to have a gun like yours in the ranks, Chad.”

Chad whirled to face the ranger, protesting. “That sounds like a good time and all…”

Joe slapped Chad on the back so hard it knocked the breath out of him. “Well, it’s all settled then. Reese’ll take you on over to the Ranger office soon as we get back to town.”

Chad put his fists on his hips. “Yeah? And what are you going to be doing?”

Joe tipped his hat back on his head. “What do you mean, Chad?”

“You come all this way just to bamboozle me into joining the Rangers, just to abandon me to these…,” he threw an arm in Reese’s direction, who had the sense to feel offended, “…gentlemen.”

Joe’s brows pinched in the middle. “I don’t know what you’re gettin’ at….”

Chad grabbed Joe’s arm and dragged him over to Reese. “Hey, Reese. Look at this prime specimen of a man. Why, just moments ago you were recommending this buck here to a career in Texas Rangers, the finest corps of lawmen anywhere. Isn’t that right?”

Reese grinned hugely. “Yes sir, the finest you could ever hope to find! And Joe would fit in right nicely, as I’ve been sayin’ for a spell now. There’s always room for fighters like you, Joe.”

Joe sighed. Chad knew the big man was hooked. All Chad had to do was reel him in. “Really, Joe. Who will keep an eye on me? You know how I can find trouble anywhere I go. I like to think of you as a sort of guardian angel, pard. Where would I be without you? Lost and forgotten, that’s what! Who found me wandering alone in the prairie? You did! Shucks, Joe, look what happened when you were gone. Near got myself killed, I did. You saved my hide once again. You can’t leave me now, not when you know how I’m a dead man without you around to cover my back.”

Joe put a finger in the air like he had a point to make, but then put the hand under his chin like he was trying to think of a reasonable response. He opened his mouth, but then shut it again, his eyes crossing in the mental strain.

Reese looked on sympathetically. “You sure can talk pretty, Chad. All my recruitment speech-giver said, ‘sign up or die.’”

Chad took this statement and ran with it. “Sign up, Joe, or I’ll die.” He put on his most plaintive face. “Please.”

Joe opened his mouth but couldn’t find words. “Aaugh,” he moaned, rolling his eyes in a signal of defeat before parting the men with two stiff arms and walking between them. He strode away, his boots churning through the sand.

Chad smirked at Joe’s retreating back. “Nobody can outfox ol’ Chad, no sir.”

Reese poked Chad in the arm. “Well, Mr. Fox, prove to me you’re worth the job and haul one of these poor boys back to the horses.”

“Why not bury them here?”

Reese smirked. “Boy, you got a lot to learn if you’re gonna be a ranger. There might be a reward on one of these hombres.”

“Sign me up!”

*****

Captain Parmalee shuffled a few papers around his desk, pretending to work on reports. The day had ended successfully, though the casualties had been steep on the side of the lawbreakers. The final count was around 10 men dead with 6 more locked in the jail. Around half of all the men were wanted for one reason or another, making their boss, McTavish, in trouble for harboring known fugitives. Parmalee made a bargain with the McTavish that instead of serving time, he would come to an agreement with Sheppard for water rights. Both parties reluctantly agreed.

Yes, all in all, it was a productive day.  Only one ranger suffered an injury, and it was just a minor flesh wound. Still…Parmalee felt worry gnaw in his gut. Ranger Bennett had disappeared from the main battle site. The only sign that he had been there at all was that the dead men’s bodies were all laid out in respectful positions with their faces covered. That had been hours ago, and still he had not returned to the barracks. Had something happened to the Private?

Much as he hated to admit it, Parmalee had a sort of fondness for the bumbling ranger. He could make any situation seem lighter than it actually was, and though his incessant talking could drive a man insane, it did make the countryside pass by faster during a long ride.

Parmalee threw down his pen in agitation. He didn’t have the man power to send out a full-blown search, but maybe just one or two could go search the area a little more thoroughly. The captain doubted he would be able to concentrate on any work until he knew that something was being done to find Bennett.

He stood up to leave just as the door burst open, banging against the wall. “BENNETT!” Parmalee barked, partially angry, partially relieved. “Where the devil have you been? It’s been hours since we got back to town!”

The ranger in question stood there, mouth hanging open like a fool. “Well, sorry, Cap’n. Heard a skirmish comin’ from the badlands. I went to go check it out.”

“And?”

“Well, there were these fellas gangin’ up on Riley! Had him backed up in that box canyon.”

“Did you stop them?”

“Yeah, this other fella happened to show up and helped me bring them in. They’re all out waitin’ to be planted in boot hill now.”

“And Riley? Did he survive?”

Bennett’s face beamed. “Yes sir!  I’ll say he did. Me and him and that other fella worked together real good and brought down them outlaws.”

“Good. Where is Riley now? I want a report.”

“That’s just it, Cap’n. I come to tell you somethin’ that’ll make you real proud. I got Riley all set to sign up for the Rangers!”

Parmalee crossed his arms, unbelieving. “Oh really? What changed his mind?”

“Well, there was this matter with the other fella, a guy by the name of Cooper. He ‘borrowed’ Joe’s horse, so to speak, and since him and Joe used to be pards, Joe buffaloed Cooper into sayin’ that he had to join the Rangers, since he owed him for takin’ his horse and for…”

“Never mind, Reese. So this man Cooper is signing up too? What kind of man is he?”

Reese slapped his hands together. “Just the finest, most daring man you’ll ever see! Cool as ice, even when there’s danger, yet as hot as lightning when it comes to shootin’ that iron!”

“Oh, really?” Though technically it was a question, it came out as a statement of disbelief. “Well, get them in here. Now.”

“Right, Cap’n,” Reese said enthusiastically, giving Parmalee an exuberant salute. He wheeled about and crashed into the doorway with one shoulder, stumbling out the door and right into Riley’s arms. The future ranger caught the stocky man easily, setting him back on his feet like he had done it numerous times.

“You’re dismissed, Bennett. I’ll speak to these men alone.” Reese looked disappointed but did as instructed.

Parmalee eyed the men as they entered the office, his gaze critical and skeptical. “Ranger Bennett was just telling me that you men are aiming to join the Rangers. I want to hear it from you.”

The two men looked at each other for a moment before the smaller one shrugged. “Sure, why not. Don’t have anything better to do, I suppose.”

Parmalee snorted. “And who might you be?”

The man stood up straight like he was a cadet reporting to a superior officer. “They call me Chad Cooper, sir. At your service.” He tipped his hat with flamboyance.

Parmalee rolled his eyes. Just what he needed: a fancy Southern boy to cause trouble. “Bennett already vouched for your fighting skills. You wanted for anything?”

“Ah…,” Cooper’s eyes shifted over toward Riley, who was staring at the floor, “…no, I don’t think so.”

Parmalee turned to Riley, who was standing calmly, casually hooking his thumbs in his gun belt and his hat low over his eyes. “I already know what I need to know about you, Riley. What made you change your mind to join?”

The large man glanced over, making eye contact with Cooper. “We do everything together, apparently,” he said while quirking an eyebrow.

“Well,” Parmalee said while turning around to pick up the roster book, “I suppose I’ll just go ahead and sign you boys up. A probation period is customary for new rangers, and you two are no exception. Do your job without any backtalk and you’ll do just fine.”

In moments, the men were signed up and sworn in. Cooper seemed a little dismayed at the lack of a badge, but if they wanted one, they’d have to make one for themselves. Parmalee shook both of their hands. “Welcome to the Rangers, boys. Head next door and stow your gear in the bunkhouse. The stables are right next to that.”

Parmalee watched them leave, shaking his head. Reese sure knew how to pick them.

*****

Chad and Joe settled into the ranger life fairly quickly and made friends with nearly all the other rangers. Reese had made it his duty to show them the ropes and, just as Joe had predicted, Chad was quick to tease the older ranger. The three friends had quickly become a trio of partners and were often assigned to patrol duty together. Their strengths complimented each others’, making them an effective team. Their ability to get along made them even stronger. They all let each other do what each did best and left it at that, needing no role of leaders or followers.

After returning from a successful mission, Joe was relaxing on the porch of the office, his chair tilted back and his hat over his eyes. A jaunty step paired with a more clomping stride on the boardwalk signified the approach of his two pards on the boardwalk. The two were arguing about something, but, as always, in good spirits. Joe shook his head. He could never get any peace with those two around…but somehow it just seemed right. Silence had become unnerving ever since he met those two. The feelings of camaraderie had only increased since his arrival in Laredo, and now he couldn’t imagine life without both Chad and Reese cluttering the air with their incessant speech.

No, Joe couldn’t imagine a better life…even when Reese ran into him, almost knocking the chair over. “Excuse you, Reese.”

“Sorry, Joe. Chad was just tryin’ to make me go try my hand at bustin’ them broncs again.”

Joe came to his feet so fast his two friends stumbled backward. “Reese, whatever you do, don’t do that.” He turned toward Chad, his face hot. “Don’t you ever learn?”

Chad smiled innocently, holding the face as long as he could before busting out laughing, Reese joining in. “You should have seen your face, pard! You looked like somebody just said the bunkhouse was on fire! Ha ha!”

“Not funny,” Joe growled.

Reese waved his arms. “Hey, usually it’s you two gettin’ me! Figured it was your turn for once.”

“Humph.”

Chad snapped his fingers. “Oh, by the way, Reese, the Cap’n wants to see you.”

“Yeah? What for?”

“Said somethin’ about cleanin’ out the stables, I think.”

“No he didn’t!” Reese looked wildly at Joe. “I had stable duty last week!”

Joe shrugged sympathetically. “Sorry, pard….”

“We’ll see about that,” Reese said and charged into the office.

Chad and Joe eased closer to the open door to eavesdrop, catching the tail-end of the conversation. The captain was saying, “I’m surprised that you’re volunteering for them, Bennett, but I’m sure Cooper and Riley will be grateful to you.”

Chad and Joe couldn’t hear anything else over their own attempts to keep their laughter silent. They hightailed it down the street as fast as possible when Reese came out of the building like a charging bull screaming, “YOU TWO!”

Finally, Joe knew. This was where he belonged. It was unmistakable.

***The End***

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